Examine any list of the finest fictional detectives of all time and you won’t need a magnifying glass to spot Inspector John Rebus.
The creation of Edinburgh writer Ian Rankin was beaten to the number one spot only by Sherlock Holmes in a poll of W H Smith readers and his popularity is about to increase even more in the next couple of months.
The curmudgeonly crime-solver is taking to the stage for the first time in Rebus: Lost Shadows which will visit Nottingham, one of only eight venues on a two-month tour.
Meanwhile Ian is promoting his 22nd novel featuring the detective who specialises in flouting authority and doesn’t play by the rules. In A House Of Lies is in the shops this month.
With book-signing tours in the UK, Canada and the US, Ian wasn’t able to watch rehearsals for Long Shadows and didn’t get to see the show until it actually opened at Birmingham REP.
I chatted with him while he was at home in Edinburgh about whether he found it a problem writing for the stage, why he’s never watched a complete episode of Rebus on television and whether the character who’s now a retired policeman has any life left in him.
Ian wrote his first play, Dark Road, with Mark Thomson, artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, in 2013.
Recently producer Daniel Schumann approached Ian, said he loved the character of Rebus and wanted to put him on the stage. The idea appealed to Ian.
“We decided quite early on that we weren’t interested in taking an existing novel or story and trying to adapt it. We wanted to tell a new story that could really only be told as a stage drama.
“He put me in touch with (playwright) Rona Munro, we met and it turned out that she’s a fan of the Rebus novels. Between us we came up with a story that we thought would work really well on stage and then we just started writing.
“I think if you asked Rona she would say it was hard work. It wasn’t for me – it was really good fun.”
Ian didn’t have a huge say in who would play Rebus on stage. The man chosen is Charlie Lawson, known to millions as Jim McDonald in Coronation Street.
I met Charlie at Birmingham REP and he told me Rebus: Long Shadows is the most difficult thing he’s done in the 38 years he’s been an actor.
“It’s enormous: it’s 109 pages and 108 of them are me. The challenge is the length and the size of the piece. Parts like this come along once in a blue moon. Sometimes it’s really good to challenge yourself.”
The cast also includes John Stahl who plays Rebus’ nemesis, the notorious crime boss “Big Ger” Cafferty, and Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated Cathy Tyson who takes the role of Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke.
“These are great actors,” says Ian who is excited about seeing the play. “You put great actors and a great script together and you should get some electricity on stage.”
It will be fascinating to see Charlie Lawson as Rebus. Some people will no doubt compare him to both John Hannah and Ken Stott who played the detective in four TV series broadcast between 2000 and 2007. But Ian didn’t watch either actor.
“You can’t help but see clips and trailers but I’ve never actually sat through a whole episode. I didn’t want actors’ voices and mannerisms to get in the way of the character as I saw it in my head.
“I’m less fussy about that now. I think Rebus is ingrained. I don’t think watching it on a stage for a couple of hours is going to change how I write about the characters in the way that watching it over the course of a TV series would.
“I remember writers like Colin Dexter who did Inspector Morse saying he changed his Morse to be more like John Thaw because he was so taken by the portrayal on TV.
“I didn’t want that to happen; I didn’t want Rebus to start to resemble an actor and not be his own person because for me he was a complete package.”
Ian James Rankin OBE was born on 28 April 1960 at Cardenden, Fife. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1982 and then spent three years writing novels when he was supposed to be working towards a PhD in Scottish Literature.
He had a number of jobs including working as a grape-picker, a swineherd, a journalist for a hi-fi magazine and a taxman.
The first novel he had published was The Flood in 1986 and the following year Rebus came to the public’s attention in Knotts & Crosses.
Rebus wasn’t supposed to become a series of books; he died at the end of the first draft of Knotts & Crosses. Thankfully during the editing process Ian gave him a reprieve. Anyone who has ever read one of the Rebus novels which have been translated into 22 languages will no doubt express their gratitude.
Ian has also penned standalone novels as well as books under the pseudonym Jack Harvey.
His latest book, In A House Of Lies, features a cold case of a missing private investigator’s body being found locked in a car hidden deep in the woods. It seems every officer on the case has something to hide. Rebus knows where the trail may lead – and it could be the end of him.
“Rebus has got older, he can’t use his physical heft to intimidate suspects, he can’t get into fights because these days he would lose. As he gets older, his health isn’t what it was. He now realises he’s not immortal. He’s looking to see if he can still make sense of the world as it keeps changing and what role he can play in that changing world,” says Ian.
“I’ve really enjoyed the fact that in his later books he’s a very different character from the one we knew ten, 20 or 30 years ago.”
So what’s next for Ian? Promotional tours will occupy him until the end of February and then he’ll start thinking about his next novel.
“I don’t know when it’ll be finished, I don’t know when it’ll be published. The next book doesn’t have to be delivered until 2020. Next year if I don’t get around to writing a book it’s not a huge issue as long as I come up with an idea and get it started.
“Back in the old days I used to write two books a year just to make enough money to live on. Now I’m in the fortunate position where a book every two years gives me enough money to live on.
“I seem to be as busy if not busier than ever. People are always coming up with ideas. You’ve just put the idea into my head of a second stage play – I hadn’t thought about that at all.”
Before that there’s the tour of Rebus: Long Shadows which joins the increasing number of thrillers being written for the stage. Why are they so popular?
“People who read crime fiction like a drink. And theatres like it when you have a drink during the interval. You’ve got to have an interval and you’ve got to get them into the bar drinking.
“The woman who runs the bar at the Lyceum Theatre said ‘I’m delighted by your play.’ I said, ‘why, do you like it?’ She said, ‘I’ve not seen it yet but the bar’s full every night!”
No doubt people will be raising a glass to Ian Rankin to celebrate the success of both Rebus: Long Shadows and In A House Of Lies.