“Crime fiction comes back to a very central question,” says bestselling author Ian Rankin, who’s found himself mulling over readers’ endless fascination with killings and other grisly wrongdoings. “Why do human beings keep doing terrible things to one another?”
It’s an easy one to ask, but difficult to answer - there are ‘myriad reasons’ why people break the law, he says, but murder sits in its own grim category.
“It is the taking away of something unique and irreplaceable from the world. Which is why it’s still the most shocking crime imaginable. If somebody steals stuff from your house you can replace it, but if you take a life that’s not coming back, in any shape or form.”
Rankin, the creator of detective John Rebus, will be exploring this theme in Sheffield next week when he appears with a panel of experts such as pathologists and police officers for Investigating Murder: An Evening with Ian Rankin and special guests, an event that promises to patrol the ‘boundaries between fact and fiction’, revealing what really happens in a homicide inquiry. Inspired by a similar celebration in Scotland last year for his character’s 30th anniversary, it’s a fresh take on the usual Q&A and book signing.
Rankin’s 22nd Rebus novel, In a House of Lies, was published last month. “It seems to me fans of crime fiction are absolutely fascinated by the real processes,” he says. “A novel has to cut through all the boring stuff that happens in a criminal inquiry. I give the reader a sense there’s a lot going on – trawling through files, looking at CCTV, paperwork, interviews that take you no further forward. That’s happening somewhere, but not on the page. We focus on a small set of characters as they push the story forward. That means leaving a lot out.” Not that Rankin has a particularly cosy relationship with the police: he doesn’t get ‘hugely close’, he says.
“I don’t want the books to become PR exercises for the police. I still want to feel free to write about bent cops. I’ve got a small network of people I can call on if I need information, and they’re always really helpful, because they want novelists to get the details right. It’s not in anybody’s interests to get the details wrong.”
Rankin’s novels have shifted millions of copies and have been translated into 36 languages, while Rebus became a successful TV series, first starring John Hannah and then Ken Stott. Another TV adaptation is on the way and a stage production has just begun a national tour. Nevertheless, Rankin says he feels ‘nervous’ as In a House of Lies hits the shops. “When it’s published suddenly you get a flood of people who’ve read it and of course now, thanks to social media, they can immediately let you know what they think.” The days of receiving sackfuls of letters are long gone, though fans still send post to him care of The Oxford Bar, the pub in Edinburgh where Rebus drinks in the books and the author goes in real life.
Investigating Murder is at the Victoria Hall Methodist Church, Sheffield, 7.30pm, October 18. Tickets 0114 2721749.