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Ian Rankin

1960 -


Ian Rankin was born in the village of Cardenden in Fife in 1960. He went to school in Auchterderran and then Cowdenbeath where an English teacher recognised his writing ability and encouraged him to go into higher education, the first of his family to do so. He went to Edinburgh University where he studied English Literature and Language, graduating in 1982. Between 1983 and 1986 he returned to work on a PhD thesis on modern Scottish fiction, but became increasingly involved in his own writing.

After university and before his success as a novelist, Rankin had a number of jobs which included working as a grape-picker, a swineherd, a journalist for a hi-fi magazine, and a taxman. Marrying in 1986, he lived for a time in London where he worked at the National Folktale Centre, followed by a period in France, before returning to Edinburgh where he still lives with his wife and two sons.

His first novel, The Flood, was published in 1986, and set in a decaying mining village; while the following year saw the publication of Knots and Crosses, the first of the 'Rebus' series, for which he is internationally renowned.

Inspector Rebus, Rankin's protagonist, is a somewhat cynical, middle-aged detective. Divorced and fond of whisky, he works in the darker heart of Edinburgh, often coming into conflict with police hierarchy, and retains a certain empathy for the criminal elements with whom he deals. This shadowy image of Edinburgh, projected in the novels, is far removed from the heritage and shopping opportunities with which the city is usually associated. To date, Rankin has written fifteen 'Rebus' novels, four of which have been adapted for television, with further titles planned. There are also a number of novels under the pseudonym 'Jack Harvey'.

Rankin is now the most widely-read crime novelist in the UK, as well as having the Rebus novels translated into many languages. In 1988 he was elected a Hawthornden Fellow and in 1992 won the Chandler-Fulbright Award. His literary achievements have also been recognised by the Universities of Abertay Dundee and St Andrews, which have awarded him honorary degrees, and by an OBE in the Queen's Golden Jubilee Birthday Honours List of 2002.

Consideration of Rankin's work has begun to appear in university literature departments, highlighting a depth and complexity which, it is felt, crime fiction rarely exhibits. Rankin is a regular guest on the BBC's Newsnight Review programme and in 2002 had a three-part series on the nature of evil, broadcast by Channel 4. He is often to be found in Edinburgh's Oxford Bar, a watering hole also frequented by his fictional anti-hero, Rebus.

(Last updated in September 2004)


Knots and Crosses, published in 1987, was the reading public's first introduction to Detective Inspector John Rebus, the anti-hero who would bring Ian Rankin literary fame, and offer new perspectives on the genre of crime fiction. Set in Edinburgh, Knots and Crosses tells of a city on edge, with the disappearance and brutal murder of two young girls, while the fate of a third hangs in the balance. Hard drinking, worried about his teenage daughter, Samantha, and troubled by his army past, Inspector Rebus is both a headache to his superiors, and recognised as a detective who gets results. When sinister, ritualistic messages (the knots and crosses of the title) start to appear, Rebus knows that the case is personal. He is removed from the investigation but his natural suspicion of authority and unorthodox detective methods prove invaluable to the conclusion of the murder hunt.

In Knots and Crosses Rankin also sets the scene for the following novels, introducing themes and characters which will reappear throughout the series. Central to these is Rebus's instinctive mistrust of police hierarchy, as well as his knowledge of and uneasy dealings with Edinburgh's criminal underclass. Also introduced is Gill Templer, a fellow detective whose presence and by-the-book investigation style will be a mainstay of the Rebus novels.

Black and Blue (1997), Rankin's eighth 'Rebus' novel, is set apart from the earlier novels such as Knots and Crosses by its length and complexity and is the novel which secured Rankin's status as the UK's premier crime writer. Four separate plot lines are interwoven throughout 500 pages, forcing Rebus to travel the breadth of Scotland in this 'state of the nation' novel. Technically complex, the use of multiple plots (which may or may not be connected) keep the reader guessing and undermine the traditional view of crime fiction as formulaic. Blurring the boundaries between fiction and history, Rankin revives Glasgow's mythologised bogie-man 'Bible John,' who raped and murdered women he met at the Barrowlands Dance-hall in the 1960s but was never caught. Prompting Bible John's resurrection is the threat posed by 'Johnny Bible', a copy-cat serial killer. The investigation is further complicated by the suspicious death of an oil-rig worker, the police's desire to trace the supply of drugs from mainland Scotland to the oil-rigs, and the accusation of police corruption in an old murder case which implicates Rebus and his former mentor Lawson Geddes. As happens so often in his search for answers, Rebus avoids playing by the rules, putting himself in personal danger and using his underworld contacts, in particular Big Ger Cafferty, a career criminal who, in prison or out, acts as Rebus's nemesis throughout Rankin's novels.

Mixing history, politics, mythology and the worries of contemporary life, Rankin highlights the hypocrisy of a society in which dark dealings are never far from the seemingly respectable surface. Influencing this theme is the divided-self of the Scottish literary tradition seen in texts such as Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and in the ambiguity of Hogg's Private Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). Rankin's novels can also be seen to draw on the work of American crime writers Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy, although his decision to avoid neat endings (especially in Black and Blue) shows a willingness to experiment and to move beyond the expectations of the crime genre.

Rarely at ease with work or personal life, Rebus is put through a particularly hard time by Rankin in Black and Blue and again in the bleak following novel The Hanging Garden (1998). Samantha, Rebus's daughter is involved in a hit and run, from which she will never fully recover. While she lies in a coma, Rebus must investigate a series of hangings which, if related, link an Edinburgh cemetery with a village in WW2 France. Accusations of Nazi war crimes create mounds of paperwork, while Rebus wrestles with old acquaintances from Scotland's criminal underclass, now involved in prostitution running from Bosnia.

Aware that, while it makes for a good plot, Rankin cannot keep his character under such intense strain, he pulls him back from the brink in his 2000 novel Set in Darkness. Back on familiar ground in Edinburgh, Set in Darkness addresses contemporary Scottish political issues and the building of a Scottish Parliament after a hiatus of almost 300 years. An old corpse found by workmen is followed by the body of a wealthy tramp. The murder of a prospective MSP further tests Rebus's detective skills as does the return of his old sparring partner Big Ger Cafferty in a novel that once again forefronts the schizophrenic nature of Edinburgh's old-town/new-town divide.

The Rebus series continues in 2004 with the release of Fleshmarket Close, a novel in which Rankin again pushes at the boundaries of the crime genre, tackling the contemporary issues of immigration and racism. With Rebus reluctantly facing early retirement on the closure of his old station, Rankin continues to develop other characters, in particular DC Siobhan Clarke, as well as offering loyal Rebus fans some surprises in his love life.

(Last updated in September 2004)