The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival 2012 – Part 2: Ian Rankin

There can’t be too many readers of crime fiction who haven’t got at least one book by Ian Rankin on their shelves, certainly a Rebus novel and possibly also the first two books with DI Malcolm Fox. Rebus has had to retire – due to the rather unfortunate(?) decision made by Rankin to age his detective in real time – and so now it’s the turn of Fox, who has the unpopular, difficult job of investigating the wrong doings of his fellow police officers. Judging by the line of people waiting to get Rankin to sign his latest book The Impossible Dead at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival this evening, it’s clear this was a special event. And when on stage he pulled the first draft of his next novel out of a plastic bag and waved it around, you could almost sense the hands reaching out for it.

The tone was set when Ian walked on to the stage filming us for a forthcoming documentary about Ian Rankin and the novel writing process. If I’d have known I’d have made an effort to scrub up a bit. Nevertheless, before long Rankin had us hooked on anecdotes which threw light on how he drew inspiration for his novels and how they had been known for getting him into trouble. The younger author, fresh from not completing a Muriel Spark PhD, discovered the hard way that it’s best to disguise much better than he had done the real people he’d put in the pages.

As we were all in Oxford, it was interesting to hear that Ian Rankin had selected Rebus as a name as a Scottish counterpart to Oxford’s Morse. Morse is a type of code just as Rebus is a kind of puzzle. Rankin did reflect on the dramatisation of Rebus – which he’s never seen – and seemed relieved that he now has the rights back. But you can’t afford to be too precious about such a medium when its viewers can be persuaded to buy your books.

Other mediums Rankin had played with included a graphic novel – Dark Entries, which gave an account of John Constantine, the occult detective. This, however, had been much harder than writing a novel because, Rankin said, the reader does much of the work with a novel, fleshing out with mental images the words in a sentence. With a graphic novel, the author does everything but actually draw the images.

As for the future, presupposing that J.K. Rowling doesn’t come up with an Edinburgh detective for her forthcoming novel for adults, there is unfinished business with Rebus – ‘if the good Lord spares me, which hopefully she will’.

It was a highly entertaining evening, with some excellent content to make one think as well as laugh and it was topped off by listening to Ian Rankin read from a short story he’s been writing over the last few days – a noire 1930s, 1940s P.I. story set in America, which gave its author the fun of using words and phrases that would be totally out of place in modern Edinburgh and the Oxford Bar. Ian seemed pleased to have excised Rebus from his mind at last and sounded very ready for whatever is to come, as, I’m sure, are his many readers.

Photos (c) Kate Atherton 2012

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