Northern Ireland is home to some fantastic crime writers – it's a genre of fiction which has really taken off in the past few years. Tonight however, Belfast is playing host to a firm favourite from across the pond, as Ian Rankin lifts the cover off his latest Rebus novel, Even Dogs in the Wild.
Crime fans stream into Redeemer Central Church on Donegall Street and the venue is soon packed as the sold-out event, organised by No Alibis Bookstore, gets underway. Before the main attraction takes to the stage though, we’re eased into proceedings with a spot of jazz from renowned trumpet player and BBC jazz broadcaster, Linley Hamilton.
He’s also brought along a couple of guests in the form of pianist Scott Flanigan and blues and jazz guitarist Ronnie Greer. The relaxed rhythms of jazz certainly mellow the crowd, but there’s still a frisson of excitement when Rankin appears with his interviewer for the evening - Eamonn Hughes of the Queen's University English Department.
The Scottish writer's latest book brings his much-loved Detective Inspector John Rebus back into play, albeit in a slightly new set-up. Now retired from the force, this time around readers will see Rebus operating as a private eye, not unlike another famous detective. Rebus however, is probably not the type to be wearing a deerstalker hat...
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was of course, from Edinburgh, although unlike Rankin, he didn’t set his books in the city, so Sherlock Holmes did his detecting elsewhere.
'I thought it would be a wee bit of fun if Rebus is in retirement and comes in as a private eye,' says Rankin. 'Then he would perhaps have a wee bit of fun himself as a consulting detective. I never read any Conan Doyle or any crime fiction until late on – until I’d written crime fiction actually.
'It was a revelation to me that I’d written a crime novel when I was published. I was trying to write something like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.'
Born in Cardenden in Fife, Rankin, like his fictional creation, is not originally from Edinburgh, although it’s where he now lives. When asked whether Rebus, who’s still discovering parts of the city, has surely seen everywhere by now, he says the challenge now is for Rebus to view it with fresh eyes.
'He’s seen the sights as a detective, so all he can see are crime scenes,' says Rankin. 'He has to unlearn that side of his nature. He’s always seen the Mr Hyde, but it would be nice to see the Jekyll now and again.
'But there are bits of Edinburgh I’ve not seen and if I’ve not seen them, he might not have either. I dare say he hasn’t gone into many museums and galleries…'
The story meanwhile, unravels differently from previous Rebus novels, and is therefore arguably, not a 'Rebus novel' per se suggests Hughes. Rankin agrees with this assessment, insisting that Even Dogs in the Wild is about legacy and what’s passed down through the generations.
'It’s about families and relationships, and this dysfunctional family I’ve created between Rebus and (DIs) Malcolm and Siobhan,' he says. 'So it’s not really a ‘Rebus novel’.'
When it comes to writing, Rankin’s stories start to take root when he identifies a theme or question he wants to explore. He then finds a plot and from there, decides which characters will front the story. 'And so far, that’s always been Rebus,' he says. 'I keep thinking I have unfinished business with him.'
In response to the question then about whether DI Siobhan Clarke or even gangster, Big Ger Cafferty, might ever get their own book, Rankin says it all depends on whether the right story comes along. So far, it hasn’t happened.
'With Siobhan, she was never going to be the central character,' he says. 'I’ve never had a plot or theme that I thought was hers. The ideas I get suggest themselves as being ideal for one character or another.'
With Even Dogs in the Wild, Rankin throws Glaswegian and Edinburgh police together as a group of Glasgow gangsters arrive in the city. There’s also a murder to be dealt with and the story sees Rebus and Cafferty come face-to-face as the crime boss comes under fire from an unknown source.
'At 65, they now have to use their street smarts and guile instead of their physical presence…' says Rankin, who’s aged his characters realistically, albeit admitting to ‘slowing time’ a little over the last few books.
Having lost various friends last year, including fellow author Iain Banks, Rankin is all too aware of the stealth of mortality, which is reflected in his writing. Indeed, it caused him to take a break in 2014, although despite his wife and agent advising him to take a full year, he couldn’t quite make the 12 months. 'I nearly did… but I started writing short stories,' he says.
When questioning is opened to the floor, the first query is perhaps one most Rebus fans want to know. Does Rankin prefer Ken Stott or John Hannah in the TV dramas of his books?
'I’ve never watched them,' he says, deftly side-stepping the question. 'I have all the DVDs but I didn’t watch them because I didn’t want actors’ faces and voices in my head when I wrote. I know fans were happy with Ken Stott. John Hannah was too young perhaps.'
Part of what makes the Rebus books so popular, and which fans love the stories for, is their authenticity, and how Rankin depicts the realities of working in Police Scotland. However, he says all research is done after writing the first draft – so he knows what he needs to know then. He also likes to play games with his readers.
'I’ll use real places and then I’ll make up a fictional place and people will go – where’s that?'
Even Dogs in the Wild is published by Orion and is available now.