Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Beloved Detective Returns

Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin knew his fans were attached to his famous fictional detective, the grizzled, hard-drinking John Rebus. Readers write in with romantic advice and diet tips for Rebus. Some make pilgrimages to Arden Street, the site of Rebus’s Edinburgh apartment, and to the bar he frequents, the Oxford. “You even get people arriving at the police station and asking if they can talk to Rebus—cops tell me that,” says Mr. Rankin, whose books have sold 17.5 million copies.

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POPULAR DEMAND: Writer Ian Rankin brings back John Rebus.

But Mr. Rankin was unprepared for the outcry he sparked when, after 17 Rebus novels, he retired Rebus from the police force in his 2007 novel “Exit Music.” Readers and booksellers begged him to write prequels or stop Rebus from aging. Mr. Rankin created a new—younger and healthier—Edinburgh detective, Malcolm Fox, but fans have kept inquiring after Rebus.
Five years since his last appearance, Rebus has returned as a civilian consultant on a possible serial-killer case in Mr. Rankin’s new novel, “Standing in Another Man’s Grave.” Below is an edited transcript of a conversation with Mr. Rankin.

Did you always plan to bring Rebus back? It seems like you left the door open.
People had been asking me, “What’s happened to the old guy? What’s he up to these days?,” and I would tell them he’s working as a civilian for the police.

Your new character Malcolm Fox, couldn’t be more different from Rebus. Rebus drinks and smokes and Fox eats bananas and drinks tap water. Were you consciously trying to fashion a very different protagonist?
When Rebus retired, I still wanted to write detective novels and I still wanted to write about Edinburgh, so I had to invent another detective who would allow me to do that. I didn’t want readers to feel that they were getting Rebus light, so I needed my detective to be a very different kind of character—psychologically different, philosophically different.

Some of your fans have an intensely personal devotion to Rebus. What are some of the stranger displays of fan devotion that you’ve encountered?
One woman got me to sign a book and managed to get a facsimile of that tattooed on her back. The Edinburgh I write about is a real place, so you do get fans making pilgrimages to the places I write about in the books. Of course they go to the Oxford bar, which is the pub where he drinks and where I drink. The problem with that is fans of Rebus are very disappointed when they meet me, because I’m not him. I’m not as complex as him, I’m not as dangerous as him, and I’m not as damaged as him. I was in the Oxford bar yesterday and I picked up my mail and had a couple of pints.

You get fan mail at the bar?
People just write “Ian Rankin, Scotland” on the envelopes and somehow they magically end up at the Oxford bar.

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