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IAN RANKIN on Exit Music

Written by Tony Black

                                                                                                    THE week before I get to work on this article, I bump into Ian Rankin in the foyer of the BBC's Edinburgh HQ.

I'm here to discuss the 'post-Rankin generation' on Radio 4's Open Book, such is the interest in the UK's most popular crime writer.

As I spot Rankin, there's a twinge - his latest, and possibly final Rebus book is due out soon and he's currently besieged by the media - how will he react to more glad-handing?

Jump five minutes and my fears are allayed: the man is ice. Strolls over, sharply suited, an air of calm about him as he begins to chat about his new book, Exit Music.

Jump another week, and he's agreed to this interview. I try to get to the bottom of two recently printed comments about the blanket coverage he enjoys: is Rankin 'manipulating the press'? Or merely 'playing the minx'?

“I haven't heard either of those quotes. I'm not aware that I've ever tried manipulating the media; and as for being a 'minx' ... I don't see it.”

He expounds: “Quite a lot of the publicity I get is positive. In the UK we are known for our tall-poppy syndrome, in which we build people up then come to loathe them. Hasn't happened to me yet, for which I'm grateful.

“I still have a good degree of anonymity, and can go most places without being recognised. Anyone who's been on daytime TV will have more chance of being spotted in the street than a Rankin or a Rowling.

“When I started, and for the first half dozen Rebus books, I got scant-to-no media attention. I could walk into Edinburgh bookshops and find the shelves bereft of Rankin titles; it was all more than a little depressing. So I'm not about to knock any interest in me, especially if it brings readers to the books - and maybe to crime fiction in general.”

Well, that's that cleared up then. We move on to the more serious issue of, his writing. I put it to Rankin that Rebus, in terms of popularity, is rapidly becoming something of a later-day Sherlock, an assumption he modestly deflects.

“I'm not sure Rebus is up there with Sherlock Holmes in terms of global recognition - you'd have to go to Harry Potter instead,” he says.

“The books sell well in some countries, less well in others. Nor has the TV had the success (so far) of Morse. I'm happy with the way the books have been received and happy that I have created a version of contemporary Scotland which readers seem to enjoy.”

It has, however, been a slow burn. Rebus didn't reach his highs of popularity overnight.

“The early Rebus books were neither as big nor as complex as the later ones,” Rankin explains.

“They served as an apprenticeship, during which I grew in confidence. I realised that crime fiction can take on big ideas and themes and explore important contemporary issues and dilemmas. As the books got better, so sales started to increase. A lot of it was down to word of mouth and enthusiastic booksellers.”

With Da Vinci Code-esque economies of scale all pervasive these days, I ask him, are the chances of publishers taking the risks they took with his own early career over?

“Good question. We used to say that in the UK if a publisher believed in the quality of your writing, they would happily publish you at a loss year after year. I can't see that situation continuing, which means we're now more like the American model, where publishers expect you to make it big from the very beginning. Problem with this is, it can be ruinous (in the medium-to-long term) for younger writers. Hype (and elongated touring) can play havoc with the creative impulse,” he says.

It's true that the publishing world seems to be spinning itself into an enthusiastic whirl every few months to produce the 'New Rankin'. It's not a tag that seems to bother, the real McCoy, though.

“It was bound to happen,” he says.

“Publishers don't like to take risks, so they will happily piggyback on your success rather than put some effort into establishing a new writer as a wholly individual and challenging voice. Hey, it happens to me in some countries where I'm called 'the new Henning Mankell'...”

One thing's for sure, Tartan Noir is enjoying a surge in popularity and its 'King' as James Ellroy christened him, thinks it's about time.

“There's never been a better time to be a young, urban British (especially Scottish) crime writer than now,” insists Rankin.

“Crime is sexy and publishers are looking for the next big thing. I only wish this were true of other genres.

“Crime fiction is taken more seriously than ever and has attracted a new generation who don't think of it as a second-rate genre. This means quality writers who are pushing in new and exciting directions, be they Denise Mina or David Peace.”

The reasons behind the current boom in Scottish crime writing remain elusive, but Rankin offers some explanation.

“I'm not sure why there has been an explosion of talent north of the border in the crime genre. Maybe you reach a critical mass, and once one or two writers have made a success for themselves, it gets easier for other writers to get noticed (and get deals). Maybe it's because there is no real tradition of the crime novel in Scotland (we have gothic adventure stories instead). There's no Agatha C for us to be in thrall to, so anything goes.”

He insists we haven't peaked in Scotland yet, and says the current practitioners of Tartan Noir are 'firing on all cylinders'. His own efforts as an outspoken champion of the genre - he asserts it should be accorded the same gravitas as literary fiction - may have something to do with this.

“You can now study crime fiction at some universities. You can write high school English essays about crime novels,” he says.

“We need more in-depth reviewing of crime fiction in the news media, and soon enough the literary prizes will find crime writers on their shortlists.”

It's a prediction we should all take note of. One more I ask him for relates to his serial detective, and when the right time for Rebus to bow out might be.

“I think the time to give up is when the author loses interest in the character or series; when you find you have nothing new or interesting to say.”

But for Ian Rankin that may well be a long time off, with a host of new projects lined up.

“I've got a wheen of work on the horizon: a comic book for Vertigo Comics in New York; beefing up my recent New York Times serial into a fully-fledged novel; an opera libretto; and two further books which I'm contracted to write but don't have any ideas for as yet.”

And what about those rumoured big-name collaborations?

“Peter Robinson and me (and Michael Connelly and others) sometimes have a sherry too many and promise each other we'll do a joint book someday in the future. I doubt it'll ever come to pass.”

And with yet another media confusion cleared up, I hear the Exit Music calling.

Exit Music by Ian Rankin Exit Music is published by Orion on September 6th 2007 hbk £18.99

Tony Black's first novel PAYING FOR IT is to be published by Random House in 2008. Ken Bruen kindly praised the book, saying it "blasts off the page like a triple malt . . . one adrenaline-pumped novel that is as moving and compassionate as it is so stylishly written". More of his writing can be found online at: Scotsman.com, Books from Scotland, Thug Lit, Pulp Pusher and is forthcoming in Demolition and Out of the Gutter. Black lives and works in Edinburgh. Reach him at: t_black_uk@yahoo.co.uk

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