Leader in U.K. Crime Fiction Finds Fans in U.S.

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Quick, now: Who was the biggest-selling crime-fiction writer in the United Kingdom in 2001, according to official industry figures? P.D. James? Ruth Rendell? Patricia Cornwell? John Grisham?

Ian Rankin
Photo Credit:
Jerry Bauer

No. It was Ian Rankin, whose gritty police-procedural novels featuring Scottish Detective Inspector John Rebus have won England's Gold Dagger Award and made Rankin a household name in the U.K.

American readers and critics are taking to Rankin and Rebus, too, in increasing numbers. The latest entry in the Rebus series to be published in the U.S. is The Falls, a Book Sense 76 selection for January/February.

"Rankin's books sneak up on you," writes Pat Kehde, of Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas, "since at first they seem like 'just' really smart police procedurals. But they are also about complicated people and beautiful and scary places. The characters and their issues are so recognizably contemporary."

Reviewers on two continents hail Rankin as a detective-fiction master.

But in a recent interview the author said that he found his genre almost by chance.

"I became a crime writer by accident," Ian Rankin explained recently by e-mail from Edinburgh. "The first Rebus book was supposed to be an updating of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I chose a cop to play the Jekyll part because then the Hyde could be a villain from his past. Having been classified as a crime writer after publication, I then spent some time reading nothing but crime fiction ... for the first time in my life! I loved the tight plotting, the sense of place, the pacy storytelling, the characters. I found that everything I wanted to say about contemporary urban life could be said in the form of the crime novel."

Often, the fictional events in the Rebus novels are inspired by crimes from the actual past. "Most of my books start with a historical or real-life mystery, to which no satisfactory solution has yet been provided," said Rankin. "With The Falls, it was the case of some tiny coffins found hidden in a cave in Edinburgh in the 19th century; they're now in the museum here. I wanted to give them some kind of 'closure,' if only in fictional form. By using real cases, I hope to persuade the reader that they are reading something 'real.'"

By drawing on current and historic fact, Rankin is able to explore through fiction the geography and wider psychology of Scotland. "Edinburgh is the main character in most of my books," said Rankin. "Rebus is a creation of Edinburgh; he is shaped by the city and by his need to know more about the city."

And faithful readers feel the need to know more about John Rebus from book to book.

Rankin is happy to enumerate how he and his series character are, and are not, alike: "Rebus smokes; I never have. He drinks too much, and, whenever possible, so do I. We have similar musical tastes. We share the same dark and isolated thoughts, go for long night-time drives together, scream at the moon before heading home. He's older than me, but I'm becoming more like him as time passes."

The Falls (the 13th Rebus novel) finds his moody protagonist in fairly good shape, Rankin noted: "Rebus is in a new relationship, which should prove to be good for him. He's fairly stable. His drinking is under control and is likely to remain that way if only because the new woman in his life has been there before with her ex-husband, who was an alcoholic. She should be able to help Rebus, or at least deal with him.

"Rebus is thinking of selling his city apartment and moving to the coast; he thinks some changes are about due in his life. He's as cynical as ever about the bureaucracy of his job, but knows that the job itself is the one thing which sustains him -- because he can busy himself investigating other people's lives rather than having to deal with his own demons.

"I think Rebus has seen his darkest hour," his creator said. "He's coming back into the light."

The Falls was a number-one bestseller in England in both hardcover and paperback. Rankin did a short November tour of the U.S. in support of the American edition (St. Martin's) -- a tour kept shorter by travel problems in the wake of September 11.

"I was impressed by the nation's mix of courage and thoughtfulness," said Rankin.

Recognizing the challenges facing many independent booksellers these days, Rankin said that the best thing for independents to do is to emphasize their strengths: "What smaller stores can do better than anyone is give an effective, personal, and knowledgeable service." The Scottish indies are having problems, too, he said: "Our oldest independent bookseller (which has been run by the same family for over 150 years, incredibly) looks like it's about to go to the wall."

As for the fate of his own fiction in the States, the pragmatic Rankin has a wait-and-see attitude.

"I'd welcome a 'breakout book' in the U.S.," he acknowledged. "But The Falls has been out for a couple of months now, and I can't quite see the signs of a breakout yet! All I can do is try to make each book better than the one before, and hope that the word-of-mouth, along with the publisher's marketing skills, clicks."

-- Tom Nolan