Just months after he shuffled off into retirement, the life and times of Inspector John Rebus are to be celebrated at the Edinburgh institution which laid the foundations of his tormented career. But in a twist worthy of a whodunnit, the drink-sodden detective will not be found at his accustomed haunts, St Leonard’s police station or even the Oxford Bar, but at the National Library of Scotland where this fictional policeman was originally created.
Launching the exhibition Crime Scene Edinburgh, Ian Rankin revealed that Rebus emerged on to the page at the library in the mid 1980s, when as a postgraduate student, the writer was supposed to be completing a doctorate on Muriel Spark.
With research funding behind him, Rankin said that he had been presented with an opportunity too good to miss. “I thought: ‘What would Muriel Spark want? A thesis which isn’t read by anybody? Or would she like me to try and be a writer?’ So I did enough of the thesis so they couldn’t kick me out and managed to write novels as well,” he said.
Among items loaned from Rankin’s personal collection, the exhibition features manuscript pages of his still unfinished thesis and his “most precious possession” a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, signed by Dame Muriel on the only occasion the two authors met.
Rankin’s first completed work was Summer Rights which he described as a black comedy set in a Highland hotel, “featuring a one-legged, schizophrenic librarian called Janine”. It was turned down by the publishers Gollancz. He followed up with the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, which was published 20 years ago. The book’s denouement is worked out in the tunnels under the National Library building and in Edinburgh Central Library which is almost directly opposite on the city’s George IV Bridge.
Crime Scene Edinburgh celebrates the author and his creation and draws out literary and other connections which influenced the Rebus series. Some items highlight macabre aspects of Edinburgh’s past, such as a note book made from the skin of the murderer William Burke, on loan from the Royal College of Surgeons. Others detail the musical references in the books.
A display of Tartan Noir crime fiction indicates Scottish authors who have been influenced by Rankin and who have influenced him It includes William McIlvanney’s 1977 novel Laidlaw, the first of three to feature a misanthropic detective with a drink problem.
“McIlvanney was an influence, definitely, in the early days,” said Rankin. “He was a ‘proper’ writer, a literary author who had turned to the crime novel and written Laidlaw. I remember going up to him at the Edinburgh book festival in 1985 and saying, ‘Mr McIlvanney, I’m writing a crime novel that’s a bit like Laidlaw, but set in Edinburgh.’ I gave him a paperback of Laidlaw and he wrote ‘Good luck with the Edinburgh Laidlaw’. I still have that.
“I met him last year at the festival. I got [McIlvanney’s 2006 novel] Weekend signed by him, and he said, ‘The Edinburgh Laidlaw done good.’”
Rankin, 47, is currently working on the script of a comic book and a libretto for Scottish Opera, and intends to “beef up” a serial he wrote for the New York Times and publish it as a novel next autumn. The story, based around an art robbery in Edinburgh features neither Rebus nor his assistant, Siobhan Clarke.
The author said he remained undecided about continuing his Rebus series, which was written in real-time, and apparently concluded this summer with the publication of the 17th novel, Exit Music when his fictional hero reached the retirement age of 60.
“Next summer I will be able to take a breather or sit down and start to think about whether I want to do a book with Siobhan, or do I want to try and bring Rebus back. By then I might have discovered I have nothing new to say about him,” he said. In the meantime, he joked, he had been receiving hate mail from serving police officers for suggesting that the retirement age should be raised to enable his creation to continue in his job.
Rankin scotched a suggestion the National Library display should become permanent. “There is a permanent museum. It’s called the Oxford Bar,” he said.