Sunday Times 18 January 2004
These are dangerous times for shrinking violets to be out and about in Edinburgh, even in an unassuming little pub in a shadowy street near the city centre. This is the Oxford Bar, and here Ian Rankin is at work researching his 15th Inspector Rebus novel. A careless word, a gesture, a nervous habit, and you might find yourself immortalised in its pages.
When he was in his early twenties and starting out as a writer, Rankin found "everything I wanted to say about Edinburgh" in the Oxford's claustrophobic rooms and social mix -policemen, postmen and the rest who jostled together at the bar.
Two decades on, munching on a "Rebus roll" of corned beef and beetroot, he finds the place as inspirational and congenial as ever.
It's not that he sets out to monitor the behaviour of his fellow citizens, Rankin explains between mouthfuls, it just happens. The other night he was listening to two taxi drivers discussing the computerised codes they use to identify police cars and speed cameras. "Brilliant stuff," he says. "I was scribbling it down on a beer mat, maybe for the next book or maybe not. Just that bit of inside information, then if you put it in a book, every taxi driver who reads it says, "Wow, he really knows his stuff," and all you've done is listen in a pub. It's like Muriel Spark says, 'Nothing is lost to the writer'. We loiter with intent, we sit around and without knowing it we are actually picking up characters, the tics, the little personal things they do, which they don't know they're doing."
For an interviewer -like those cabbies looking askance at him with his beer mat - this watching brief can be unnerving. "It's like you with your pen," he says, "click click, click. Six months down the line I might want a character who is slightly nervy and I'll think, 'Maybe he's clicking his pen ...' You just never know where you're going to get a character from, or a trait or a one-liner or a story. I don't know what's useful until I start writing, then this repository of stuff seems to come to the surface."
It may be part of creating the perfect Rebus environment, but weaving fact and fancy like this can be a risky business. In Let It Bleed, the fire, the fug of smoke and the folk musicians in the Oxford were lovingly described as "Rebus rested his foot on the polished brass bar-rail and drank his drinks". For years afterwards regulars were chiding Rankin about that nonexistent bar-rail. "I misremembered," he shrugs. "I was living in London at the time. Make a mistake about the Oxford and I get picked up more than for any mistake about police procedures or historical inaccuracies."
In the early novels some of the Edinburgh scenes were only composites of real places. Then, Rankin says, "I decided I was making life hard on myself -why don't I write about real pubs and real police stations?" So he burnt down the fictional Great London Road copshop; Rebus moved to St Leonards police station on Edinburgh's Southside.
More changes will be required for the novel due in the autumn. Lothian and Borders police recently closed their CID operation in St Leonards and the detectives moved out; Rebus will follow suit. "You have to stay true to the changes in the city," says Rankin. "It means he'll lose a lot of people he used to work with." Rebus is "95% certain" to be assigned to the Gayfield Square station off Leith Walk, though the author has never set foot inside it. "I just need a rough idea of the layout - I could do it by talking to a cop," he adds.
Here in the Oxford, the symbiosis between the writer's pub and his pen expressed itself in the names of his characters. John Curt was the post-graduate student who worked in the bar and introduced Rankin to its nicotine-stained charms. He lends his name to the trusty pathologist of the novels, outranked in fiction as in life by Professor Gates, named after the landlord of the Oxford, John Gates.
The pub began to feature by name by the sixth novel. Harry Curran was immortalised as "Edinburgh's rudest barman" in Dead Souls. When Rankin embarked on A Question of Blood, Curran asked the author to improve his sex life, at least in his fictional persona. The result? "Siobhan noticed that Harry, the dour barman, was smiling. 'He seems unusually chipper,' she commented to Rebus. 'I think young Harry's in love'." Rankin winks across his pint: "Mission accomplished."
Real customers began to appear at the bar alongside the fictional Rebus. Leith gallery owner Muir Morrison was consulted by the detective after an art theft, and Hayden Murphy, Edinburgh's most charming Irish journalist, was identified as "the writer", his work spread over a table in the Oxford's back room. "I went over to give a serious lecture at Trinity," says Murphy, who has joined Rankin among the late morning customers, "and their introduction was: 'Hayden's main claim to fame is he appears in Set in Darkness'." The Oxford has a website devoted almost entirely to its place in the literary hall of fame.
The blurring of fact and fiction, says Rankin, helps to suspend reality. Those featured in the books don't mind because it is done without malice. True, the cops who once used to drink in the Oxford have found a new watering hole ("You're not really surprised, are you?" asks Murphy) but the author insists most people are flattered to think they might make it into the novels.
On the other hand, there are many people who mistakenly believe they have appeared in a Rebus book. "I say: 'Have I ever met you before?' 'No.' 'Well how can it be you?'"
In Knots and Crosses, Rankin recalls, there is a reporter who plainly works for The Scotsman. "He's quite sloppy -not his journalism but his personal habits, egg down his tie and everything. James Naughtie reckons it's him." The villain (described as "insane ... the most dangerous-looking man Rebus had met in his entire life") works in the public library on George IV Bridge. Rankin says: "Alan Taylor (associate editor of the Sunday Herald) thinks it's him, because he was working at the library then."
Other hardened professionals discern themselves. Thomas Richey, serving 65 years for shooting a woman dead while under the influence of LSD, wrote to Rankin from an American jail in Washington state. "He said: 'In Dead Souls, you've got a Scottish guy who's released from Walla Walla state pen and comes back to Edinburgh with a score to settle. It must be me.' He wasn't pissed off, he thought it was just a bit odd." Rankin had chosen the prison because he had visited a friend who lived near it.
In fact, these days the most dedicated fans can book a place in a Rebus novel through charity auctions. A merchant banker parted with Pounds 5,000 for a mention in A Question of Blood; Belle and Sebastian's bassist got a part in another book.
One woman handed over Pounds 200 for her cat to appear. "That was really hard work," says Rankin. "The thing was called Boethius." The first time Rankin auctioned off a fictional role, a pal of his wife's won and asked for her American friend -Fern Bogot -to have a part. "Fern Bogot?" shrieks Rankin, still incredulous. "How the hell do you get her in an Edinburgh-based book? I made her a prostitute. Fern was a bit iffy at first, but she's fine about it now."
But Rankin continues to borrow from real life. One novel was based on the case of Bible John while Rankin admits a lingering fascination with the Edinburgh World's End pub murders. "I quite like writing about unsolved crimes because it's telling the people who did it, 'Look, we've not forgotten, people are never going to forget and eventually they are going to get you'."
But he doesn't approve of those true-life crime books, which fill the shelves next to the fictional detectives. They're apt to attract some unhealthy minds, though Rankin reckons he's in the clear on that score. "I'm not worried about being obsessive," he retorts in the face of the accusation. "I'm not that obsessive."
This from a man who has just eaten a Rebus roll for breakfast.