'I'm attracted to the darker side of life'

Im attracted to the darker side of life
Crime author Ian Rankin spoke to City Times during the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

Dubai - Would Dubai make a good backdrop for a crime novel? Bestselling crime author Ian Rankin tells us that and more

By Maán Jalal

Published: Sun 20 Mar 2016, 7:46 PM

Last updated: Tue 29 Mar 2016, 2:44 AM

Crime fascinates us all. When we see a headline for a horrific crime, a mystery, a kidnapping or a disappearance, we can't help but want to find out what's happened and more importantly, why. This is one of the reasons why crime fiction, across a multiple of platforms from television shows, movies, documentaries, and of course novels, has gained a massive fan following.
Even for those people who might not be fans of crime fiction, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot are characters that have left an indelible mark in our subconscious as heroes of the genre. If the world of crime fiction, which became its own distinct literary genre with a devoted readership in the 19th century, exists to warn, control or scare people, it has equally exposed the underbelly of society and forces us to ask the question: why do people do bad things to each other?
It is a question that has always fascinated crime fiction writer Ian Rankin and a subject that has been at the heart of his novels which have brought him much acclaimed fame.
"These are easy questions to ask and very difficult questions to answer," Ian told us at the recent Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. "We are fascinated by them. Which is why people keep coming to crime fiction. Because it tells us about ourselves."
Ian's novels are known to push the boundaries in crime fiction, keeping the reader hooked from start to finish through tension, well-thought out plots and fully fleshed characters. His Inspector Rebus novels put him on the map, making Rebus Scotland's favourite detective and Edinburgh a city that is now recognisable for all its interesting contrast to countless readers.
Of the 20 Inspector Rebus novels, 10 were adapted as a television series on ITV, starring John Hannah as Rebus in Series 1 & 2, with Ken Stott taking on the role for Series 3-5.
With a number of awards and accolades under his belt which include the Chandler-Fulbright Award, four Crime Writers' Association Dagger Awards, the prestigious Diamond Dagger in 2005, Ian is also a regular contributor to BBC2's Newsnight Review. He also presented his own TV series, Ian Rankin's Evil Thoughts on Channel 4 in 2002 and Rankin on the Staircase for BBC Four in 2005. In 2007, Rankin appeared in Ian Rankin's Hidden Edinburgh and Ian Rankin Investigates Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde also for BBC Four.
Basically, Ian knows a thing or two about crime and evil. He sat with City Times where he discussed why people commit malicious acts and how crime fiction is another way for people to understand their histories and themselves.
This is your second time at the Emirates Airline Literature Festival. Why did you decide to come back?
My wife! She twisted my arm. She came with me last time and she absolutely loved it. She likes a little bit of winter sun and there's no sun in Edinburgh - at the moment there's no warmth. And I said to her, 'but I'm in the middle of a book!' and she said 'oh we've got to go.'
How have you found the reception this time around?
Well even from when I was here three years ago the audiences are much bigger for me this time. Many more people seem to know about the books. What was lovely this time is that there are a lot of young people in the audience. I mean 12, 15 and 20-year-olds. Cause I always think of crime fiction readers, the majority of them, being middle aged, you know? It's not a young readers' game. But I think a lot of young writers are attracted to it and they are bringing a different vibe to it and that's attracting a younger audience.
Have you seen much of Dubai during this visit?
Not so much but we did go to Al Maha (resort) so we spent two nights in the desert. We got to see a really interesting conservation project out there with the oryx and the gazelles and a lot of bird life. It was beautiful.
Do you think Dubai would make a good setting for a crime novel?
Like every country in the world, like every culture in the world, there are problems here. There are social problems, economic problems and you still have the same thing, you have human nature. And where you have human beings and human nature, you get crime. All crime fiction is about that one big question: why do we human beings keep doing bad things to each other? That's true of every culture.
Do you think you've found an answer to that through your writing and research into the crime world?
No, which is why I keep trying. A few years ago I did a three part TV documentary series on evil and that gave me the chance to interview psychiatrists who'd worked with serial killers, cops who'd arrested serial killers, people who'd worked with psychopaths and special hospitals . . . I was exorcised by a priest in Rome, I spoke to someone about the devil in literature, I interviewed a guy on death row in Texas in America who was just going to be executed. And at the end of it, I could point to an act and say that was an act of evil at the time in which it was carried out. But to point at a human being and say that human being is irredeemably evil, irreversibly evil was much tougher for me. I've met very few people in my life who I thought were just evil and couldn't be changed. It was fascinating.
Why are you so interested in crime? Why does it fascinate you?
I think I'm attracted to the darker side of life. I'm fascinated by why people do bad things and what it says about us. How many steps have we come from the cave, you know? We have this veneer of civilization and culture, around us, but if you put us in certain situations we would very quickly go back to being animals. Shakespeare talks about it, about a forked animal; you take King Lear and put him on a heath and a few days later he's almost mad and the people around him are almost mad as well. It doesn't take much.
Do you think each city or culture has its own kind of crime that reflects something about that society?
Its weird because often my novels begin with a true story, and its something somebody's told me and it's happened in Scotland. I write the book and I go on tour and other people in other countries tell me, 'yeah we've had something like that.' A few years ago I did something about people trafficking into the UK and then I went to Australia and they had the same problem. And xenophobia starts because of it and people get worried about new people coming into their culture. It's kind of funny how you think it's something specific to your culture. No, its not, its universal. The same people who commit crimes are maybe similar kinds of people with similar kinds of issues with society.
Crime is so popular across a number of different entertainment platforms. People are happy to sit at home and do ordinary things while they watch gruesome subject matters. Why do you think so many people are enthralled by crime?
You're getting all the thrills and spills without any of the danger because you're sitting at home but you can get really involved. You get a sense of threat and tension and you get the roller coaster ride of the story from the comfort of your armchair. And at the same time you can be learning stuff, you can learn about forensic techniques but you're also being challenged with these big moral questions. Why does crime happen? What does it say about us when crime happens? And you get the "comfort" cause always, almost at the end, justice is done. Which doesn't happen in real life. I mean this is often why crime fiction isn't taken seriously as literature because it feels like a closed universe in which there will be an ending. The bad guy will be revealed and will be punished and real life isn't like that. Real life is more ragged, not all the loose ends are tied up.
But people obviously enjoy that. Many classic books, like Jane Austen, for example, whose books are considered as great literature, have a similar set up with what some might say is a predictable ending.
You know what fiction does? Fiction gives a shape to the world. You go through your life and you're not in control. The reason I like writing fiction is because I'm in control. In the real world I can't control everything but I can control everything on the page. That's really cathartic and it's like being a child and having control of your imagination and playing with your imaginary friends and making them do things. As a reader, you get the comfort of this universe that is structured and in order. I was talking to somebody at lunch today and they were talking about coincidences - about bumping into somebody in the middle of nowhere, someone you knew 30 years ago. If you put that in a book people will think it isn't real. Fiction has to be realistic, the real world isn't. That's an interesting dichotomy.
Which is interesting because in crime fiction you need to plan a lot, don't you?
It's a pain. It's the tyranny of plot, you know? I would love to write a literary novel where you don't have to think about all the connections between all the characters and what you've got to do next and how well all your strands connect, cause I can only make it up as I go along. I don't do a lot of planning before I start so the first draft of the book is almost a kind of a plan in itself of what the book is going to be.
Does it get hard to balance that creative side against the plotting side?
Absolutely. But you get three or four drafts so by the time it all goes to the publishers it looks like it was meant to happen. The first draft is 'what is the plot and does it work?' The second draft is making the writing as beautiful and perfect as it can be and then maybe adding texture to the characters, giving the characters characteristics so they are not just ways of getting you from one place to another place. So you do all of that and you get a final polish and you do your research and you make sure your research is all okay, then you send the book to the publisher.
When you're writing, are you trying to get the reader hooked in those first few pages?
My American agent once said the reason my books don't sell as well as they might in America is sometimes the murder, the crime, doesn't happen until page 40, 50, 100. American readers want it on page one. So I sort of did that for a while and it is a way of grabbing the reader straight away. It doesn't need to be a murder. Usually it starts with a crime scene, cause a crime scene is a really good way of grabbing the reader and also it's easier for me. It means I can introduce my cops very quickly. It's always from their point of view. I don't tend to work from the point of view of the victim or a bystander, so they arrive after the bloodshed. Which means my books aren't as violent as they could be.
That's true, your books are never gory, you never seem to be trying to outdo your last book with something more bloody.
The human imagination will fill in all these gaps where you don't need to be graphic in your descriptions.
Another thing about your work is that everything appears very ordinary but often something evil is lurking and about to take place.
I think it's what is potentially happening below the surface. even sitting here what could be happening around the corner or downstairs or a few miles away . . . there is a potential for terrible things to be happening near us without us knowing about them. And Edinburgh is a very beautiful city, a very cultured city but underneath it, if you scratch the surface it's got problems, it's got issues, it's got crime. And I thought this is what I'm writing about - the Jekyll and Hyde in all of us.
That can be said about a lot of cities and eras. Evil is very universal, crime is universal.
It's interesting because with crime fiction generally, you don't get crime fiction when there is chaos in a country. You get it afterwards to explain the chaos. I'll give you an example in Ireland when we were having lots and lots of bombings and shootings and there was chaos and violence there was hardly any crime fiction. Then when they had the peace process and politicians were taking over and there was more order, suddenly there was an explosion (if you'll pardon the phrase) of crime fiction. Lots of young writers trying to explain what just happened and using crime fiction to do it.
What's are you reading at the moment?
I read everything, I do read a lot of crime friction, but I read a lot of general fiction and non fiction . . . biographies on movie stars, musicians. I just read The Occupation Trilogy by Patrick Modiano. This guy won a Nobel prize for literature a couple of years ago. It's about France just after World War Two. Interesting book, because its not a period I know much about.
What's your favourite part of the writing process?
I think it's getting the idea. Getting a really good idea and being very excited about it and then bouncing it around in your head and on paper. The reason why every writer keeps writing books is because we have failed to write the perfect book. Every book we write is the failure to write the perfect book. And so we have to start again try again.
What about your least favourite part?
The worst time of all is when you show it to somebody. Until you show it somebody it's the perfect book. It's only when you show it to somebody that you start to see the flaws.
What's your advice to wrtiers who want to write and get published?
You have to read a lot. You have to write a lot. You have to be very self critical but at the same time you have to get a thick skin cause when other people criticize you, learn what's useful and not useful. You have to get lucky. There is an element of luck involved to get published and you have to stay lucky if you want to stay getting published you have to stay getting lucky.
How have you stayed lucky?
You make your own luck in a way. You keep writing, you keep honing your craft, you keep learning you keep trying make each book better than the book before it. You never give up. You get a thick skin so you never give up. The only thing I ever wanted to do is be a writer so, you know it's the only thing I was ever good at, so I just stuck with it and just kept trying to make my books better and better. Which is where reading a lot comes in, you have to read a lot to see what other people are doing and how they are doing it and what are they not doing and whose dong the stuff you could be doing that you're not doing. So you look for gaps in the market I guess learn from them. Never get lazy and never give up.

Even Dogs in the Wild is Ian Rankin's twentieth installment of the Inspector Rebus series. The much loved Edinburgh detective is pulled out of retirement again and leads us through a story that explores the darkest corners of our instincts and desires. To read an exceprt or to purchace online visit Ian Rankins website: www.ianrankin.net or follow him on twitter: @Beathhigh

More news from In The City