“So there's this gullible guy,” says Ian Rankin. “He gets taken to a party, or what he thinks is a party. It's really a derelict housing block.”
He's reciting a story that he's heard, a piece of Scottish urban folklore.
“They tape him to a chair, put a bag over his head, and leave him there. Anyway, he gets his hands free, and escapes.” Mr Rankin's nodding to us, like we're the one telling him the story, egging for a conclusion. “And?” he asks, as he asked the storyteller. “End of story”, the storyteller told him. “Woah,” he says, like he said to the teller. “That's the start of a story.”
If you're planning to go to three book signings in a month, make sure you've bought the necessary tickets to all three. I didn't. I think I tried to buy an Ian Rankin ticket before they were available and the Waterstones bookseller told me to come back in about a week. Then I forgot.
I turned up at the event last night in St. Anne's Church in Manchester as the event was starting. The bookseller on the door checked the list for my name. It wasn't included. I rooted through my diary, finding the tickets to all the other events, but no Ian Rankin ticket.
The bookseller waved me in. “We'll sort it out later,” he said, eager for the event to start on time. I think he recognised me from the numerous events I've previously attended. I sat down among the rest of the audience, mostly in their forties, 180-strong, the church so full that temporary seating has been lined up in the main isle and is filling up fast.
It occurs to me that I've blagged my way in here, kind of by accident. I should try this more often.
As we're in a church, it's the vicar that introduces the event, addressing us from his pulpit. He hands over to Ian Rankin, author of the Detective Rebus novels and who bares a striking resemblance to Neil Morrisey, who takes the mic.
“Er, why am I here... right, my new Rebus novel.”
A chuckle ripples through the pews and up the high walls, the first of many.
“This is the second 'retirement novel', and it came about due to a change in the law. Rebus no longer needed to retire at 60, so he wasn't going to work as a taxi driver or open a bar in Marbella. Also, the Double Jeopardy law has been dropped, so that gave me a chance to revive Rebus.” Armed with a plethora of stories jotted down at numerous retirement parties for policemen, he started to form a plot for the new novel.
He doesn't talk for long about the book, however, as some things are better discovered on the page. So instead he describes his days on tour with a Scot singer, the late Jackie Leven, and how his haggis rider was met with disdain in the pub.
When he does mention the book he describes the title- Standing in Another Man's Grave- as a Mondegreen, a misheard lyric. Rankin misheard Jackie Leven singing "Standing in Another Man's Rain". “It's a bit of a long title,” he admits, “but it didn't do Stieg Larrson any harm...
“One of the best things about being a crime writer is that if someone pisses you off, you go home and kill them. I hate to say it in a place like this-” he looks up at the whitewashed columns and ceiling- “but you can 'play God'. One guy was giving me stick, so I made him a Gorilla with impotency problems.” He takes a sip of water. “Why did I tell you that story?”
He describes how having a cop for a main character gives the author a “backstage pass” to all sectors and layers of society, and how police move around the city allowing for location changes within the novel. Similarly, as an author, Rankin gets a chance to meet people you might not ordinarily encounter- Chief Exorcist Gabriel of Rome, for instance, for his TV show Ian Rankin's Evil Thoughts. For this show he met a death-row convict of twelve years in Texas, and spent a Sunday night in the Italian capital, where Father Gabriel- who claimed to have met the devil 7 or 8 times- made him kiss a crucifix on camera.
“I can't go in half the pubs in Glasgow now,” Rankin says.
The conversation weaves on through a myriad of crime topics. “PD James says we are all capable of murder. What stops us,” he says, “is the most interesting part. My least favourite part of novel writing is the ending. The crime genre isn't taken seriously by the fiction community because the closure that you need isn't realistic.
“I don't even know who the killer is when I'm writing a first draft. My wife said, 'yeah, this could be problematic.'If there are any budding crime writers out there, don't do it the way I do it.”
The talk weaves on through Rankin's past, where he reveals he had once been a swine herder and had killed a pig through alcohol poisoning by feeding it an overripe, fermented leaf. He also accurately guessed the layout of an existing Scottish town without going there, to the disbelief of locals that read the book.
During the Q and A session he reveals how he carves dialogue (“Elmore Leonard said 'trust your reader. Allow them to make their own interpretation.'”) and how his crime novels cause a few riffs in the police community (“Rebus looks down on cops. But it's not me, it's him!”)
He also regales an instance when a policeman threw him out of a closed church whilst he was trying to do some research for a novel, and how he caused a police inquiry after he tweeted about something he'd seen in his local area.
“My name's Malcolm Fox,” say's one audience member. “Please don't kill me!” This causes a laugh between those in the know (not me- I've never actually read a Rankin novel). Fox is a Rankin character appearing in many of his novels, an internal affairs officer and Rebus' ethical opposite. The real Mr. Fox asks about a theatre production based on Rankin's work, which Rankin admitted he really liked. It was the first time he could actually see people's reactions to his work, and he got to talk to the audience after the show.
Another revenue avenue for Rankin is to auction off an opportunity for your name to be used in his books. On one occasion the highest bidder was a fellow by the name of “Peackock Johnson”, who asked to be included alongside his pal, “Evil Bob.” Rankin admitted he really enjoyed writing these characters. When it came to chasing payment, however, the email address bounced. The author soon turned sleuth himself, and discovered that the man in question was a notorious practical joker.
The session talk ended here and the audience flocked briskly over to Deansgate, where I joined the queue unchecked. In my book, he draws a macabre hangman next to his signature.