No sooner does a new Ian Rankin book hit the shelves than it soars to the top of the bestseller lists, knocking the new adult fiction from JK Rowling, Maeve Binchy or other big hitters off their perch.
It’s estimated that Rankin’s thrillers account for 10 per cent of crime fiction sales in the UK. While huge noises have been made about Scandinavian crime writers including Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo, Rankin needs no massive publicity machine to get his thrillers noticed. After all, he’s been around a long time and his most famous cop, Rebus, was created 25 years ago.
Rankin, 52, remains grounded despite enormous success, that’s made him a reported £25m. He has famously never watched the many TV adaptations of his Rebus books, which starred John Hannah and subsequently Ken Stott.
“I don’t want actors’ voices and faces to start interfering with the voices that are already in my head,” he explains.
He admits he’s envious of the TV time given to certain other crime novels. “I’m very jealous that when something Scandinavian comes on TV, it gets given 10 or 20 hours, whereas the Rebus novels got 45 minutes per book. There was very little space for character development.”
However, he has watched a new TV adaptation of Doors Open, his stand alone novel about an art heist, starring Stephen Fry, which is due to be screened on ITV1 over Christmas.
“It was terrific. It’s the best adaptation of any of my books. The screenwriter was a friend of mine, who kept it true to the book,” he says.
Rankin lives in Edinburgh, two doors away from fellow author Alexander McCall Smith. He likes to remain quite anonymous, so you won’t spot him contemplating his pint in one of the city pubs frequented by Rebus.
Five years ago, Rankin was forced to retire Rebus at 60, until a policeman friend told him the retirement age had changed to 65, paving the way for a return.
In his 18th Rebus novel, Standing In Another Man’s Grave, the retired cop returns as a civilian working in a cold case unit. He befriends a woman whose daughter has been missing for 10 years. Another girl has vanished on the same stretch of road.
Rebus’s involvement fuels the anger of both old and new adversaries, including internal affairs investigator Malcolm Fox, hero of Rankin’s two most recent police novels, The Complaints and The Impossible Dead. The story pits the hard-bitten old-timer against the whiter-than-white younger officer.
Rankin writes one book a year and says the money hasn’t gone to his head. He drives a Volvo, buys a lot of records, books and beer – all things he spent money on as a student.
Balancing family life and career is tough, he admits. His oldest son, Jack, is at university, while his 18-year-old son Kit is severely disabled and suffers from Angelman syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that left him blind and unable to walk or talk. He attends a special school and also has a carer who lives at the family home.
Before Kit was born, Rankin wasn’t making much money. He reflects that Kit helped make his writing stronger, as he poured all his distress and anger about his son’s condition into writing.
“While he was being diagnosed I was writing Black And Blue, which was a much bigger, angrier book than previously. It was quite therapeutic at a time when in our real lives we didn’t have much control over what was going on. It ended up winning the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger, and sold four times as many copies as my previous books.”
Despite being severely disabled, Kit is very happy, says Rankin. “He’s not autistic or withdrawn. He’s 18 but his level of perception is that of an infant. He can’t walk or talk and he can’t do sign language, but we take him horse riding and even skiing with various charities and he loves it.”
Born in Fife, Rankin wrote and drew his own comic books before going on to Edinburgh University to study English literature. He started to write fiction after graduating in 1982 and his first Inspector Rebus novel, Knots & Crosses, was published in 1987.
He’ll be starting a new book in January, but has no idea if it will be about Fox or Rebus.
“I don’t know what story’s going to pop into my head. It doesn’t get any easier. You’re always up against yourself.”
Standing In Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin is published by Orion, £18.99.
Ian Rankin will be signing copies of his book at Waterstone’s, High Ousegate, York at 12.30pm on Friday, December 14.