“There’s an energy there,” Ian Rankin recalls. “We’d all go to the same café, same time in the morning. There were literally mornings where Alexander McCall Smith, J.K. Rowling, and I were sitting having coffee in the same café at the same time.”
And then these three monster-selling authors would get down to work: Smith in one corner, spinning his tales of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency; Rowling nearby, conjuring the world of Hogwarts and Harry Potter; and Rankin, weaving one of his crime novels, which probe the underbelly of the small Scottish city they all call home. This quiet triangle, pouring out words that would be devoured by tens of millions of readers, composed in close quarters in one of the world’s great nexuses of writerly inspiration: Edinburgh.
“It was a Starbucks,” says Rankin, 56. “Just a Starbucks. It was our nearest café. In fact, Jo — Jo Rowling — until recently used to sit and write in cafés. It was phenomenal. I’d sit and watch her. She’d have her earphones in, with her iPod, and she’d be writing longhand. I watched her write the final Harry Potter book. I watched her do it in the café.”
While Rowling may be the most famous author on the planet, and while loads of other celebrated scribes call the city home — including Kate Atkinson and Val McDermid — it’s Rankin who remains the godfather of Edinburgh fiction. Rankin is now a perennial bestseller stateside, but it’s hard to overstate his influence across the pond. In the U.K., each new Inspector Rebus novel is an instant chart-topper; numerous Rebus tales have made their way to television, while over 30 million of Rankin’s books have been sold worldwide, with virtually every story set in and around the Scottish capital. This is the city of Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle, who gave us Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Sherlock Holmes and Watson; its narrow streets and alleys are choked with intrigue and literary history. But for a long stretch, going back to the mid-1980s, when he created his detective, Rankin had the urban muse mostly to himself.
Now it’s thirty years on and John Rebus — a decade older than Rankin himself — has been put out to pasture by the Edinburgh police force. Though that’s not to say he’s faded quietly into his golden years. The latest Rebus novel, Rather Be the Devil, the twenty-first in the series, was released in the States on January 31, marking the thirtieth anniversary of this perpetually cranky, hard-living detective. He’s been compared to Michael Connelly’s similarly surly L.A. detective, Harry Bosch, though Rebus’s pedigree can be traced back further, to all the haunted cops and gumshoes who’ve walked the mean streets, from Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe to Sherlock Holmes himself. Forced into retirement, Rebus still cannot let go. He’s obsessed with cold cases — the latest being an ages-ago murder of a rich cheating wife in a gilded hotel, on the same evening that a Seventies rock star was staying down the hall with his band. With the help of his old partner, Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke, Rebus is able to access the files for the old case, and he starts his snooping, soon discovering that these past crimes aren’t long buried, but connect to present sins committed by Edinburgh’s ever-shady underworld.
One of the chief pleasures of the Rebus novels — or of any long-running crime series so well executed — is the detective’s supporting cast. John Rebus ages in real time, and so do his former partners on the force, like D.I. Clarke and the newly promoted Malcolm Fox. However, in this latest installment it’s Rebus’s longtime nemesis, “Big Ger” Cafferty, who’s stealing the scenes and pulling the strings.
Cafferty, Edinburgh’s aging crime lord, has long been the yin to Rebus’s yang. They’re both dinosaurs now, men limping into old age and facing mortality. Despite their natural opposition, they’ve started to feel like genuine friends. They even meet for coffee at the local Starbucks to hash out potential dangers and missteps in the current case, which soon consumes them both.
“Every cop needs a Moriarty-type person who can represent all the bad stuff,” Rankin says. “And that’s what [Cafferty] does — he represents all the bad stuff. But there’s an empathy between him and Rebus. They know each other so well. Sympathy, I don’t know, but empathy, yeah.”
Still, when Cafferty, the dark side of the coin, is wielding a hammer and nails to help persuade a boxing trainer to start talking, well, perhaps the empathy only goes so far.
“There’s still the potential at the end of one of these books for one of them to kill the other,” says Rankin. “That could happen. He and Cafferty are facing the same thing. They’re of an age where it feels like the world doesn’t need them anymore. They’re looking around and saying, ‘Do I still matter?’ That keeps me excited about him as a character, but the down point, there’s a sell date. There’s gotta be an ending. I don’t know how much longer I can keep writing about him.”
Rather Be the Devil, like most of Rankin’s work, is named after music he loves — in this case, late British rocker John Martyn’s “I’d Rather Be the Devil.” Through the years, Rankin has named books after songs by Joy Division (Dead Souls), the Cure (The Hanging Garden), and loads of lesser-known U.K. acts, along with three titles named for Rolling Stones albums: Let It Bleed, Beggars Banquet, and his breakthrough Rebus novel, Black & Blue, released in 1997 and winner of the Crime Writers’ Association’s top award — the Gold Dagger.
Ever since, each Rebus novel has tended to find its way onto the bestseller lists, even as the character’s weary worldview has seldom brightened. Edinburgh, forever a central character for Rankin, has proved to be a microcosm of the broken wider world.
“I started writing about it to try to make sense of the place,” he says. “I always say to people — if you want to know about a city, a country, a culture, go to their crime fiction. Always. If you want to know about Miami or L.A. or wherever you happen to be, India, Japan, read their crime fiction.”
An interview with the author follows, below:
So I just finished the latest book on Super Bowl Sunday. It’s pretty aptly named: Rather Be the Devil. I found myself rooting for “Big Ger” Cafferty.
Yeah, I know. The devil gets all the best tunes. I use a lot of devil stuff: “Better the devil you know, devil gets all the best tunes.” I sometimes say that to readers — when you’ve read the book, tell me who you think the devil is? In fiction we love our bad guys, and Cafferty’s one of these people. I had no sense when I invented him that he was going to be a major character, but he just got under my skin. And I thought — there’s a lot I can do with you. Every cop needs a Moriarty-type person who can represent all the bad stuff. And that’s what he does — he represents all the bad stuff. But there’s an empathy between him and Rebus.
It felt almost like a friendship in the latest book.
They know each other so well. They’re from the same place in terms of their life and the way they grew up and stuff. Their careers have gone off in tangents at some point, but there’s a lot of empathy. Sympathy, I don’t know, but empathy, yeah. There’s still the potential at the end of one of these books for one of them to kill the other. That could happen. You never know. If Cafferty’s got Siobhan Clarke [Rebus’s former partner on the police force] there and he’s holding a gun to her or something, I mean you never know. We’re all capable of doing terrible things. But when I invented Cafferty, back in book three, the character I had in mind was Mick Ballou from Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels. Scudder was one of the first detectives I fell in love with. When I came to the States in ’92, that’s when I started reading him. And Mick Ballou, I thought, this guy’s a great character. I’m sure Cafferty owes a lot to him, physically, and in terms of the way he looks at the world and deals with the world. There’s an ethic there. He has got an ethic in a way that some of the younger, more venal ones don’t. They’re willing to do anything to make a buck. There’s certain things he won’t do. But he’s a dinosaur. He shouldn’t still be there.
There was one line where I laughed out loud in this one, when Rebus says, “If you don’t make the connection, you must be Tommy.”
Yeah, deaf, dumb, and blind. Well, a lot of people in this industry, a lot of the writers, would rather be rock stars than writers. But we fell down in one or two areas. Not being able to play an instrument might be one of them, or getting no luck.
You have a punk rock background, right?
I was in a band when I was 19, and then I stopped being in a band, and then I just joined a band again at age 56, and we’re rehearsing at the moment. In fact, the guys rehearsed last night and I missed it.
Are you singing?
I’m the singer. Well, vocalist. “Singing” might be just stretching it a little bit.
What’s the band called?
Ah, I shouldn’t tell you but I will. Best Picture. I think it’s a good title. You wouldn’t believe some of the names we came up with. Brexit Angels was one of them. Brexit at Tiffanys. No. We tried a lot of them.
Is it like the Rock Bottom Remainders? [Literary all-star band featuring Stephen King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, et al.], where it’s you and J.K. Rowling and Alexander McCall Smith and everyone in Edinburgh?
Not exactly. There’s two journalists, I can’t tell you who the professional musician is, but one professional musician, a doctor, an academic, and me. One, two, three, four, five, six — six of us, which is too many for a band. We’ve got drums, we’ve got bass, we’ve got lead guitar, rhythm guitar, me, and keyboards slash violin. You know, the Rolling Stones used to have a six-piece band and they got rid of the keyboardist because six was too many.
Ian Stewart, right?
Yeah, Ian Stewart, the sixth Stone, who was born in the same part of Scotland as me, left when he was about three months old. He played in a lot, he played in Led Zeppelin. He’s on Physical Graffiti. “Boogie With Stu,” that’s Ian Stewart. He’s a hell of a guy. I got in trouble with [Stones manager] Andrew Loog Oldman once, because I said on the radio that he kicked him out of the band because he didn’t look right. He looked like a coal miner. Big chiseled face, didn’t look like a pop star. And Oldman got in touch and said, no, it wasn’t that, it was that six was too many for the band shots and everything. Anyway, we made up afterwards, but he wasn’t too happy about me saying he kicked him out of the band. But he did become the roadie and he was always their keyboard player, and he was always playing live with them. He would book them into these hotels, and they would say — we’re in this nice hotel but it’s in the middle of fucking nowhere. There’s no girls anywhere nearby — but there was an eighteen-hole golf course next door, which is what Ian Stewart did, he played a lot of golf. So he was booking them at hotels that had golf courses.
Have you met the Stones?
I’ve met all the Stones, at one time or another. And the only one whose autograph I didn’t get was Jagger. I’ve got a photo of me and Jagger, but I didn’t get an autograph. I’ve got a copy of Exile on Main Street signed by Keith Richards. And I’ve got CDs signed by Wyman and Charlie Watts.
So is Keith the coolest?
Jagger’s pretty cool. Jagger is pretty cool. I mean, that new album of theirs is pretty amazing, the blues album. They did it in like two days. A friend of mine did the sleeve notes. A guy called Richard Havers, an old friend of mine. He’s worked for the Stones for a while now, doing stuff for them.
How many of your book titles are either song names or albums? There are the three Stones albums…
Yeah, most of them, quite a lot. There was Black & Blue, Let It Bleed, and also a book of short stories that might not have been published in the States called Beggars Banquet. Then I moved on — Dead Souls, that’s Joy Division. Hanging Garden was the Cure. The Falls was a song by a New Zealand band called the Mutton Birds. Let me think. Exit Music is not the Radiohead song. It’s a song by this Scottish guy, Stephen Lindsay — he had an album called Exit Music. And a friend of mine named Jackie Leven died, so I used a couple of his. Standing in Another Man’s Grave, which is a misheard one of his lyrics, and Saints of the Shadow Bible, which is a line from one of his songs. Then we got on to Even Dogs in the Wild — that was the Associates.
I don’t know. It’s just a way — it’s just because I’d rather be a rock star. That’s really all it is. And because I name-check all these bands, I mean, Van Morrison realized I was a fan and so he got in touch and said would I like to interview him onstage about his lyrics. I’ve done that five or six times now.
How much fun is that?
Not much. It depends on the evening. He’s quite shy. He’s shy and it’s nerves. But the first night we did it was at a big theater in London where people had flown in all over the world. They’d never seen him speak before. At length — I mean, we did twenty minutes or half an hour onstage, me interviewing him. And he enjoyed it so much we did it again in Dublin a few months after. Then we did it in Belfast. We’ve done it in Belfast twice actually.
I wanted to ask you about Edinburgh as a character. It feels like, with every good crime series, the city has to be a character. Edinburgh — what is its character, what does it bring?
Well, I got lucky because when I started writing these books there was nobody writing crime fiction set in contemporary Edinburgh. So I had the place to myself. Now there are quite a lot of writers using Edinburgh, but back then, not so much. And there were several things. One, it’s a fascinating city anyway. It’s got a really dark past. It’s got an interesting present. It keeps changing, like all cities do. All cities have got their dark side, but in Edinburgh it’s actually physically there. There are two cities, there’s the Old Town and the New Town. And the Old Town was the original city, it was chaotic, it wasn’t planned in any way. The New Town was rational. It was planned. If you look at it, it’s got a grid layout, where the Old Town was like higgledy-piggledy. So it was the rational versus the irrational, the Jekyll and the Hyde. It was there in a physical nature in the city. And Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Jekyll and Hyde, and he grew up in the rational New Town. His family were engineers, they designed lighthouses. He was a rational person. But he was attracted to the darker side. As a young man, a teenager, he would go up the hill to the Old Town and consort with vagabonds and drunks and prostitutes and you name it. So he was seeing both cities in one. And when Trainspotting came along, we got that sense as well. There was this dark stuff happening in the contemporary city. So, when I arrived there — I didn’t grow up there — I arrived there at age 18 to go to university, and I thought, what an interesting, complex place, but a small place, which is great to write about. Like L.A., you almost can’t keep that in your head. It’s too big. London, Athens, too big. Edinburgh, half a million people, small city, contained, nice and easy to walk around, and nice and easy to write about. Having started to write about Edinburgh to make sense of the city, to find out more about it, I thought it was also a good microcosm for Scotland as a whole, and stuff that happens here happens everywhere. You know, you write about asylum seekers, and then you got Australia or Canada and they go, yeah we got the same problems, we got the same thing happening. You go, oh, I thought it was just us. So using Edinburgh as a microcosm is quite handy. There are all kinds of reasons for writing about it, but mostly I started writing about it to try to make sense of the place. I always say this to people — if you want to know about a city, a country, a culture, go to their crime fiction. Always. If you want to know about L.A. or Miami or wherever you happen to be, India, Japan, read their crime fiction.
I wrote the first Rebus book in Edinburgh. I was a student at the time. And then I got married, moved to London for four years. Moved to France for six years. So, for ten years I was writing about Edinburgh without living there. I used to say to people — I need to get away to write about the place. And then when it turned out we were gonna have to move back, I was like, oh, can I still write about the place while I’m living there?
Did it help, getting away and seeing it from afar?
I think it did. You know, I think that distance helped. I had a little garret in the attic of the house, that’s where I wrote, and I had maps, bus maps, plans of Edinburgh, postcards and photographs of Edinburgh all around me. And every year, once or twice, I would go back and just walk the streets and make sure I’ve got it. But the distance I think helped.
I read that when you were writing the first Rebus, you went to a police station and unwittingly became a suspect in a real-life case?
Print and the myth. I’m sure it wasn’t quite as rococo as it’s been made out to be, but what I did was, I thought, OK, I’m writing about a cop, I don’t know anything about the police or how they work. What do you do? I’ll write to the chief of police. I write a letter to the chief of police, got a letter back from his secretary saying go to this police station and talk to these two guys, two detectives. So I turned up looking pretty disreputable, middle of winter. I had a Dr. Who scarf on, Doc Marten boots, jeans, denims with holes in the knees, notepad and pen. These two very dapper detectives, three-piece suits, aftershave [slaps cheeks], came out and said, well, before we answer your questions, what’s your book about? I said, well, it’s about kids going missing, abducted in Edinburgh. They went, “Oh, OK.” And they went away for a chat and they came back and said, “We’ve got a great idea, why don’t we pretend you’re a suspect?” And they got a computer and they tapped my name and date of birth and address in the computer, and they said, “If you were a suspect, this is the kind of stuff we would ask you.” And it was only when I went home and told my dad that story that he said, “Oh, you silly bugger, they thought you did it and you were coming in to play games with them.”
They very quickly ruled me out. It went from being one missing person to seven kids, murdered by this guy called Robert Black. He was only caught by a coincidence that you couldn’t put in a book. Because real life can be full of outrageous coincidences, but fiction has to be realistic. Somebody was mowing the lawn of their yard and they heard a noise and they went and saw a van being driven away, and they took the license plate and they phoned it in. The police stopped the van and they found what was going to be victim number eight in the back of the van, wrapped up. And the cop — here’s where it gets really weird — the cop who stopped the van was the father of the kid.
Cop finds his own kid?
I know. You couldn’t make it up, right?
And the cop had enough restraint not to kill the guy?
That’s true. It’s an interesting point, I hadn’t thought of that.
Let’s jump ahead ten years. After book eight, Rebus starts to pay with Black & Blue. But that’s kind of the point where you’re the cruelest to Rebus in the book. You’re a decade in and you’re cranking these out, and they’re terrific, but they’re not getting the readership. Can you tell me about that irony?
Well, there were several things that happened at pretty much the same time. I was living in France. We’d moved to France — my wife and I, we didn’t have any kids, so I didn’t have to make much money. And suddenly two kids came along. And our younger of the two sons was quite seriously disabled. It was at the time when I was writing Black & Blue. So I’d be sitting in the attic of this old rickety farmhouse in the middle of nowhere writing Black & Blue on an old computer. Then we’d have to go to the hospital, the pediatric hospital 50 kilometers away, 35 miles away, every day for tests on him. And all these people, all these specialists talking French at us. And I could speak almost no French. And my wife, Miranda, she speaks pretty good French, but she’s in a heightened emotional state and she’s trying to translate for me, all this technical babble. Then we drive back to the farmhouse, shell-shocked, and I go upstairs into the attic again and I try to write the next Rebus book, Black & Blue. And I just channeled all that shit onto the page. I take Rebus to his lowest point, where he’s fighting his best friend and he’s got snot coming out his nose and stuff and he’s crying on his hands and knees. I sometimes say it’s like his King Lear moment. I mean, this is as low as he’s gonna get. And it was just a way of dealing with it. Because when I’m sitting there, I’m playing God. In the real world I can’t. I can’t do anything about my son. It’s very cathartic. And the very next book, what happens? Rebus’s daughter is in a car crash and she can’t walk. My son, I’d been told my son would probably be in a wheelchair all his life. OK, Rebus, you’re gonna have to deal with this. And then I felt a bit guilty, so eventually she does come out of the wheelchair again. But for a few books, I punished him.
The poetry of that is kind of remarkable. That low point — for both you and the character…
You say it’s ironic, and it’s ironic because that’s when the books got good. And that’s when the books started to sell. Black & Blue won the Gold Dagger for the best crime novel of the year. It got shortlisted for the Edgar. I’d never been shortlisted for the Edgar before. My publisher in the U.K. said, “Oh, this guy knows what he’s doing.” So they put some muscle, some marketing muscle into the next book. And the next book, Hanging Garden, got into the top ten for a week in the U.K., and suddenly I’m making some money. And the reason for it — in part the apprenticeship has been done. All the elements had been leading up to this point, but it’s the extra stuff, the extra emotional heft.
I think now I’ve dealt with that, but other stuff always comes up that you’ve got to deal with. I think now, the Rebus books now are almost like me getting old. You know, the old cliché: “I ache in the places where I used to play.” Rebus has gone through it ten years ahead of me. So I’m going, shit, I’ve got this to look forward to. He’s been punishing his body for a long time, so there’s got to be some fallout from that. And that’s what’s happening to him now — he’s dealing with mortality.
He’s a guy in his late sixties who’s been chain-smoking his whole life.
Yeah, tell me about it. My wife’s been saying to me for a couple books, she’s been saying, look, at some point something’s got to happen. And so one of her best friends who’s a doctor, I sat down with her and I said, OK, what would you expect this guy to present to you if he walked in? And she went, well, he’d definitely have COPD [chronic obstruction pulmonary disease], and he might have this and he might have that. And I went, Jesus, COPD’s enough, let’s deal with that first. But you know, it’s life catching up with him. And so he and Cafferty are facing the same thing. In their professional lives they feel like they’re on the scrap heap. They’re of an age where it feels like the world doesn’t need them anymore. So they’re looking around and saying, “Do I still matter? Can I make a change to the world? Can I still have an effect on the world?” And physically, they’re starting to fall apart. If you’re doing a one-off book, that’s something you can’t do, but in a series if your person is aging more or less in real time, you’ve got to deal with that. You can’t just chase suspects anymore. You can’t get in a fight. In the last two, three books there’ve been moments where he’s thought about getting in a physical fight and he goes, “I would lose.”
But you know, that keeps it fresh, in my mind. He’s not going through the motions. Every book he has to deal with it in a different way, because he’s changed. And that keeps me excited about him as a character. But, the down point, there’s a sell date. There’s an ending. There’s gotta be an ending. I don’t know how much longer I can keep writing about him.
But I’m not teeing anything up, man. You say, “What’s your next book going to be?” I say, “I’ve got no idea.” It could be a cookbook. It could be a kids book. I’ve no idea. Honestly, I don’t. I never know from one book to the next. I’m very jealous of writers who’ve got a five-year plan, who know what the next books are going to be.
Tell me about that process. I don’t see how writers — mystery writers — can outline, because it takes all the fun out of it. What’s the seed for you?
Well, what I do, during the course of a year, any interesting stories I hear about, I’ll write them down. Read them in a newspaper, magazine, cut them out, clip them, keep them in a big file. As soon as the deadline is six months away and I start panicking, I get the file out and I look at what I’ve got. And there’ll be something it there that I’ll go, hang on a minute, that’s quite interesting. And that could connect to this. That story could connect to this story. That could connect with that. And so I start off with two, two or three plots that I’m spinning and I do a little bit of thinking about where it might go, but I don’t really know where it’s going to go. Because in the past when I’ve plotted the book in detail, I’ve gotten 100 pages in and the book goes, that’s not where I want to go now. The book goes, I want to go off here, somewhere completely different. OK, I’ll go with you. ‘Cause where it goes is going to be more interesting than where I thought you were gonna go. I mean, in this latest one, Rather Be the Devil, I had no idea who was behind the crime, or at least one of the crimes, until about 60 pages until the end of the first draft.
If I don’t know where it’s going to go, hopefully the reader doesn’t know either. A lot of readers have this notion that you must know everything before you start. And some writers need that. But a lot of us, more than I expected, go, “Well, I’ll just make it up as I go.” That’s the fun part. The fun part is that tightrope walk, going, “This is exciting,” and you never know where it’s gonna go. What’s the destination? I don’t know. I just want to get to the end and I’ll find out. I love it. I love it. It’s a high-wire act. It works for me, but it wouldn’t work for everybody.
How much is in the rewriting, because that first draft…
Yeah, the first draft is rough.
How many drafts do you go through before you’re ready to send it off?
The first draft will be full of big capitalized sections where I’ll say, “Hang on a minute, maybe she’s the person responsible. Maybe he was in the hotel that night.” Little reminders to myself. Or “I don’t know what to do here, come back and fix it later.” I rush the first draft. The first draft is just the spine of the story. And it usually takes me thirty to forty days to do that. So it’s written fast.
What is it, 2-3,000 words a day during that time?
Yeah, ten pages easy, 3,000 words. I mean, not every day. Some days you can’t do it. Some days you sit down and it just doesn’t happen. But other days, you get great days, you get good days, but I try to do something every day, some every day. That keeps that momentum going. That means I’m not forgetting what I need to know. But it’s rough. Then what I tend to do is go and do the research, the bulk of the research, because by then I know what I need to know. Not what I might need to know. You think, oh, it’s about the banking system. Well, you could go away for a year researching the banking system. But when you’ve written the first draft, you go, “All I need to know is this bit and that bit.” So then I go and do the research and I do the second draft. And after I do the second draft, which takes away all these bits that say “fix this” and this person and that, then I show it to my wife. And she’ll read the second draft and she’ll say, “Oh, it’s a bit slow here” or “I don’t understand why he’s doing this” or “They wouldn’t have that.” In this new one she said, “Keycards for hotel rooms in 1978? I don’t think so.” They had keys, physical keys, so I had to change stuff like that. Then it goes off to the publisher, the third draft. So, second draft the wife sees. I fix what she doesn’t like. Sometimes she just puts a big question mark over a page, and I’ll say, “Well, what do you mean by that?” and she’ll say, “Well, I wasn’t very sure what was going on.” And the third draft goes to the publisher. And then they’ll say, well, can you fix that, can you change that, and then we’ll have a conversation, because I’ll say, “Whoa, it’s been edited already, come on.” There’s a lot of negotiation, so it’s usually that fourth draft that the reader sees. And that whole process takes about six or seven months.
It’s been pretty steady, one a year…
Yeah, it’s been one a year. I used to write two books a year when I was hard up. I would do a Rebus book every year plus a thriller. Then when I started making money I thought, I’m not gonna do that anymore. Now I’m at the stage where I’m trying to do a book every two years, because, I don’t know if I told you, but as you get older you lose a bit of your juice. I think getting the ideas is harder. When I started in this business I thought it’s like being an engineer in a garage or something. You can strip a car, you put the engine together, you learn how to do it. No, it ain’t like that at all. It gets harder for lots of reasons. Number one, you’re up against yourself all the time, so you want your next book to be better than the book before. How do you do that? I’ve no idea. But you don’t want to just sit back on your laurels and make everything exactly the same. Although your publisher and your reader might want that. They might want books that are not very dissimilar from the book before. But that isn’t very fun for you. On top of that, you’re up against yourself and you’re up against all these other writers who are writing great books, and you want your next book to be better than them as well. Then you’re just learning all the time. You’re learning new tricks and how you can do these, and so it doesn’t get any easier, which is annoying to me. I was hoping by this stage in my career I could just sit back and put my feet up and just do it. But I find every new book is getting harder, and getting the ideas gets harder. Getting the ideas gets hard, but luckily there’s always something out there.
Isn’t that the beauty of crime fiction? It’s infinite. It’s infinite in all the horrible ways people kill.
Well, you know, one of the nice things about being a mystery writer or a genre writer per se is that you’ve probably not been through creative writing schools. Most of us haven’t. A lot of people who’ve been through creative writing schools come out the other end wanting to be literary novelists. They want the kudos, the want the prizes. In fact, until very recently it was very hard to find a creative writing school that would do a course on mystery or thriller. They’re still very few and far between, in the U.K. What it means is that you’ve not got that mentality, you’re not writing that kind of book. So you’ve got freedom. There could be a thousand writers writing about New York and they’ll all come up with telling different stories about New York. And they’ll all come up with different characters to tell that story. And even Edinburgh is just a tiny city, and it’s got Kate Atkinson doing private-eye novels. It’s got Alexander McCall Smith. And I mean, J.K. Rowling writes in Edinburgh but her crime character exists in London. There’s me, and Val McDermid has moved back to Edinburgh fairly recently. Iain Banks did one crime novel set in Edinburgh.
This is a city of half a million people.
Yeah, and just think about the writing. Irvine Welsh doesn’t live there, but he still comes over from the States occasionally and still sets his books there. It’s this city that’s tiny, and yet it’s energizing for all these different voices.
You hear about the “Blue Zones,” these areas of the world where people live to be a hundred? There’s like six or seven, and you don’t know why. Edinburgh seems like a Blue Zone for writers. What is it about Edinburgh? What goes into these Blue Zones?
I don’t know, man. It’s an accident of history. I think it’s an accident of history. When I moved into my street where I live now, I think it was twelve years ago, thirteen years ago, they said, “You know you’re not the only writer living on this street.” I said, “What?” And they said, “No, Alexander McCall Smith lives two houses away from you.” Two houses away. And J.K. Rowling lives at the top of the road. And Kate Atkinson was about half a mile away. It was so weird, and it was just an accident. But we’d all go to the same café, same time in the morning. There were literally mornings where Alexander McCall Smith, J.K. Rowling, and I were sitting having coffee in the same café at the same time. And we would sit and chat, obviously, but we wouldn’t talk about writing. We would talk about everything but writing.
Consider for a second those three quiet tables. Consider the millions of people that are reading the words that come out of that little triangle.
I know, I know. Yeah, there’s an energy there. In fact, Jo — Jo Rowling — until recently used to sit and write in cafés. It was phenomenal. I’d sit and watch her. She’d have her earphones in, with her iPod, and she’d be writing longhand. I watched her write the final Harry Potter book. I watched her do it in the café. She would leave it and go to the bathroom and she’d leave the manuscript sitting on the table and come back. I don’t think she does that anymore, but she used to.
So what is the café?
It was a Starbucks. A Starbucks in Edinburgh. Yeah, yeah, it was just a Starbucks. It was our nearest café.
How is it writing on the road?
I can’t do it. I wish I could. I know Alexander McCall Smith can write on the road, I know people like Michael Connelly can do it. I’m always very jealous of people who can write on tour. I’ve got to be sitting in my office with my music playing and my supply of Snickers bars and tea and coffee. I can’t write — I can edit when I’m traveling, but I can’t sit and write in a hotel room, or an airplane, forget about it. That’s not me. Which, you know, when you’re doing more and more traveling, it’s tough.
You probably get the classic bullshitty backhand for crime writers — that it “crosses over” to literary fiction — more than anyone else. I’m curious, who do you think are some of the others who “cross over”?
Literary crime fiction, or crime fiction that’s worth — I mean, it’s all worth studying. But, well, having just spent a few months at East Anglia teaching crime fiction specifically, I got them to read Adrian McKinty, I got them to read Bleak House. I got them to read Patricia Highsmith. I got them to read a guy called Oliver Harris, who’s a London-based crime writer. I like his character. They’re pretty recent. There’s only three of them, a maverick cop, of course, in contemporary London. I got them to read Silence of the Lambs, which is a master class, really, in how you do it economically. I got them to read The Driver’s Seat, a Muriel Spark novel about a woman driving around looking for someone to kill her, which is a really weird, twisted book. What else did I get them to read? There was an Ellroy, The Black Dahlia. But it could have been any Ellroy. The Black Dahlia was the one they went for. Ellroy was a huge influence on me. I was living in France when I came across Ellroy. The language, the careful rhythms, the use of real characters from history. You know, you can use real crimes and real people in your books. I thought, oh, really? Which is why Black & Blue features a real serial killer named Bible John who was never caught. So he was a huge influence. And Dickens’s Bleak House — the fact that the crime novel can be anything you want it to be. It can take on the biggest moral questions, it can take on society, it can be satirical and all the rest of it. I just love all that.