Like his fictional detective John Rebus, Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin works by instinct, jotting down ideas, hoping that one will fire his imagination enough to constitute a theme or a plot. "I make it up as I go along," he says. "When I start a book, I've got no sense of where it's going to go. I don't know who the killer is, I don't know how the characters connect to each other until I start writing."
His new novel, Standing in Another Man's Grave, exemplifies his method (or lack of it). Says Rankin: "The original idea on a scrap of paper was: 'Kid went missing many years before. Parent cannot let them go,' and the notion of a road trip."
Curiously, Rankin says it was never supposed to be a Rebus novel. The hard-drinking, chain-smoking Rebus famously retired with 2007's Exit Music, 20 years and 16 investigations after his Knots and Crosses debut. But therein lies the beauty of spontaneity and a glimpse into the mechanics of a master storyteller's mind. "In my head," Rankin says, "Rebus was working cold cases as a retired detective. I went back to him because he was the right guy for the story."
Though it takes in some of Scotland's remote north, the story is based, like most of the Rebus novels, in Edinburgh a city that is to Rankin what Los Angeles is to James Ellroy. A still grieving mother approaches Rebus with a 12-year-old mystery and her conviction of its connection to a series of roadside disappearances. The top brass is skeptical, but luckily, long-suffering sidekick Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke is on hand to tolerate Rebus' maverick ways. Less tolerant is local internal-affairs cop Malcolm Fox: Rebus and his old nemesis, gangster Gerald Cafferty, are now drinking buddies, and Fox is suspicious of their relationship. And if all that sounds like the makings of a splendid cop drama, it would be because of Rankin's unerring instinct for the televisual. There have been multiple Rebus series, and a Stephen Fry led version of Rankin's 2008 standalone heist novel, Doors Open, is due on British TV in December.
Rankin has a life beyond Rebus. Since 2007, he's produced a graphic novel, a libretto (for a miniopera by composer Craig Armstrong) and two Malcolm Fox novels. "I'd met someone who'd worked for internal affairs and thought, 'This is a really interesting branch of the police: What would it be like to work in that unit, where everybody hates and mistrusts you?'"
But it is Rebus who has made Rankin into the kind of author whose work is available in 37 languages. Part of the reason for Rankin's longevity is the satisfying evolution of the Rebus books. While early novels were "more whodunity," 1997's Black and Blue melded murder with the complexities surrounding Scotland's oil industry. "I saw that in lots of cultures, in lots of countries, crime [writing] was taken seriously for its social commentary," he says. "It was seen as a political form." Subsequent Rebus adventures became more nuanced still, encompassing the good-vs.-evil archetypes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which, after all, is a Scottish classic), the noirish feel of Raymond Chandler and the morally riven worlds of Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly.
As for Rebus' next move, Rankin hasn't a clue. "I wish there was a five-year plan," he says. "There isn't even a one-book plan. I've got to start writing another book in January, and I've got nothing." Except, hopefully, an intriguing hunch or two, scribbled on a scrap of paper.