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'Crime writers want to be rock stars'

Crime novelist Ian Rankin spoke to Indrajit Hazra about Edinburgh’s dark side, drinking, music, why novelists are the laziest writers, how to choose a good psuedonym. And, of course, about Rebus...

books Updated: Jan 30, 2010 13:06 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times

Ian RankinCrime novelist Ian Rankin spoke to Indrajit Hazra about Edinburgh’s dark side, drinking, music, why novelists are the laziest writers, how to choose a good psuedonym, the travails of translating English to English. And, of course, about Rebus.

At 6.30 pm on January 21, Delhi was getting ready for another cold night. Ian Rankin, Britain's top-selling crime fiction writer and creator of the 'now-retired' Inspector John Rebus, was getting ready for his evening. He had just finished his pint of beer at Blues at Connaught Place and after tentatively singing along with the Beatles' We can work it out blaring from the speakers, he proceeded to the nearby British Council. By 8 pm, he was ready to roll. Some snatches from the evening's chat.

So how’s Rebus?
For a retired guy who no longer exists, he’s doing pretty well. I know exactly what he’s doing. All the time I was writing The Complaints, my latest book, I was aware that he was in the same building he always worked from. It’s mentioned in the final Rebus book, Exit Music, that he’s keen on staying on in a civilian capacity and work for the police. In real life, there’s a very small unit in Edinburgh that deals with cold cases – unsolved crimes – served by one police officer and three retired police officers. Rebus is now one of the three. So when Malcolm Fox, the new character walks down the corridor or goes to the canteen, Rebus, I think, is in the corner.

Why did you choose Rebus to be older than you by a generation?
It was one of those things I wish I hadn’t done but it made sense at the time. The first Rebus novel, Knots & Crosses - which was written when I was a 24-year-old student at the University of Edinburgh - was meant to be a one-off partly because I did not think of it as a ‘crime novel’. I had no interest in crime fiction, I didn’t read crime fiction, I didn’t realise that people still wrote those books. And I had no conception that I could do a series with the same character. The structure of the book and the story and everything else meant that the guy I was going to write about, something quite traumatic happened to him in his past that he had managed to block out successfully. So he had to be a good age. I just picked 40.

This is something you’ve also done with the new character in your new book, Malcolm Fox. Another man with a past.
Yes, it’s potentially a series. And Malcolm, like John Rebus, had a drinking problem. Rebus still has a drinking problem. He only has a problem when he can’t get a drink. (smiles)

So you go for these protagonists who are slightly older than you?
No, Fox is actually younger. He’s in his late-30s early 40s, I’m 50 this year. I’m 'clinging' to my 40s. But you’re right. All through my writing life, I’ve written about a guy who’s older than me. This is probably the first time I’m writing about somebody younger. It sort of makes sense.

You know what it is to be younger because you’ve already been there, done that. But to write about someone older...
It’s a good point about Rebus’s age because he has this in-built decrepitude. Once I decided that the books would exist in real time, each year representing a year of his life, it was only so many books before he would reach retirement age. I got a shock when I realised that cops in Scotland retired at 60. The general retirement age for men has been 65. So I thought I had another five, six, seven years left in him. And then I got a phone call from a detective who said that Rebus is 57 and he has to retire in the next three years. So I knew that I had two more books.

And you retired him?
Yup. My publishers said nobody minds that P.D. James’ detective is 102, that Ruth Rendell’s (Inspector Reginald) Wexford is 85. The clock stopped for them a long time ago. But the series got this reputation of being realistic with Rebus ageing. I can’t suddenly start lying. It was a risk. Everybody said don’t do it. My publisher said don’t do it. My wife said do it. “This is a golden opportunity for you,” she said. “If you feel that you’re in a certain kind of compartment and want to write a different kind of book, by retiring Rebus your next book can be a bodice-ripper, a historical thriller, a romantic novel, anything you want.” So I sat down with a blank sheet and thought what I wanted to write about. And I thought, “Oh, I want to write about the police in Edinburgh.” So here I am, back to square one with Malcolm Fox, minus John Rebus.

Maybe your wife didn’t want to share you with Rebus. My wife never liked Rebus. I know a lot of female readers like him….

Do you like Rebus? Um, I like him. But grudgingly. I have a grudging admiration for the guy.

Are you jealous of him? No, no! I’m not jealous of him. My god! I wouldn’t trade my life with his. But I know he wouldn’t like me. If we ever met, we’d last about 20 minutes.

Is it the politics? It’s everything. Everything. Apart from the fact that he’s a different generation, that he sees the world in terms of black and white, he’s an Old Testament sort of guy who would find my politics too liberal. He would think of me as a guy who never had to do any real hard work in his life, a guy who makes a living by telling lies.

If you hadn’t gone to university would you have been more like Rebus?
The small town I grew up was a small working class town. There weren’t many jobs for a guy who left high school at 15-16, which most of my friends did. It was coal mines, except they had closed down by the time I was a teenager. There was a dockyard, the army and the police. A lot of the guys joined either the armed forces or the police. Rebus joins both. Because unlike me, he left school at 15 with very few qualifications and those were the only two avenues open to someone from his class. I was very lucky. I was the first member of my family to go to university. Dunno, but I was the black sheep of the family. My parents were thrilled. Somebody in the family is going to university. Hurrah! He’ll become an accountant.

They thought the only good reason for a working class kid to go to university was to come out and become an architect, or a dentist or a doctor or a lawyer. When I was 17, the career path marked for me was to become an accountant. And then I had an epiphany. I was 17 and on holiday and suddenly I thought, “Why am I doing this?” It was only for the money. It wasn’t because I had any interest in it. Then I thought, “I love books. I like narratives, I like stories. Why don’t I study something I’m good at – English literature, specifically American literature!’ I had to break it to my parents. They said, what kind of job can you get with that? ‘Teaching?’ And they said, ‘Hmm. That’s pretty good.’ From then - I was 17-18 - I just wanted to be a writer. Everything else was peripheral.

You never wanted to be a crime writer. You just wanted to be a writer. What happened?
There was an organic process. I started off trying to write comics. But I couldn’t draw. This was when I was about 11-12 years old. Then I got interested in pop music. I would have loved to be in a band but I had no musical ability and none of my friends could afford instruments anyway. So I invented a band that existed only in my head and on paper called the Amoebas. I was the lead singer called Ian Kaput and I wrote all the lyrics. So by the time I went to university, I was writing lyrics which I thought were poems that told stories. So I started writing short stories. One of the stories became a bit too long and became chapter one of my first published novel, The Flood. And then along came an idea one night when I was returning to my student apartment: a modern reworking of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

I had become fascinated by that book. For some reason the Edinburgh-born Robert Louis Stevenson chose London, although it’s partly based on a real-life Edinburgh character, Deacon Brodie. So I wanted the story to be in Edinburgh and main character a cop. I made initial notes. They were like: ‘Main character: a cop (?), receiving weird messages from someone in his past I knew nothing about the police. I didn’t read crime fiction. I’m the only crime writer I know who wasn’t a reader of crime fiction before he became a writer of crime fiction.

That sort of worked to your advantage. You didn’t have the baggage that other crime fiction writers might carry. And going by your books, you’re less interested in solving the case than in delving into the crime itself, what it means to people and the place. Dostoyevky wrote about a crime in Crime and Punishment. But when did you decide that you’re going to write books in which the crimes are going to be solved?
I suppose I knew from the outset that a puzzle with a detective has to have some sort of resolution. The crime book has a pretty strong structure. There’s a murder, the crime; the investigation; the resolution, the unmasking of the villain. It’s very hard to escape that rigid structure. I’ve tried to play games with it and it hasn’t always worked.

There have been some writers like Jim Thompson…Ah there’s noir. There are books where nobody dies, where there are no detectives. The pulp fiction novels were like that. But Rebus was a cop. He worked for the police. But you’re right. There was no tradition of the crime novel in Scotland. There was a strong tradition of very dark, Gothic, psychological novels. And that was the tradition I thought I was writing in. There was no Agatha Christie hanging over us. There was no thought that there has to be a certain kind of story. The Americans always had a private eye because their early successful stories were private eye novels. And in Britain, there was always the amateur detective, the spinster, or the gifted Belgian, which I don’t find very believable. My sister was a huge fan, and I’m sure I must have tried reading one or two Agatha Christie books. I thought, “This world means nothing to me. It has nothing to say to my world.” I want to write about Edinburgh. For a small city, I think it’s endlessly complex. I started to write to try and make sense of that. The books were always about me trying to explain Edinburgh to myself. Peripherally they were whodunits.

There’s an Edinburgh vs Glasgow thing going on in your writing. Obviously, Edinburgh feeds you. But where do you stand?
Edinburgh is an extremely nutritious city for a writer. Tthere’s so many stories that seem to be floating around at ground level waiting for you to grab them and make use of them. It’s weird actually, because when I first arrived in Edinburgh in 1978, I couldn’t find any contemporary novelist writing about contemporary Edinburgh. There was an explosion in Glasgow writing. Suddenly there was Alasdair Gray and James Kelman and a bunch of other writers. There didn’t seem to be an equivalent in Edinburgh till (Irvine Welsh’s) Trainspotting came along. I just got the feeling that people were getting scared off by a seminal Edinburgh novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark that was published in 1961. That was her portrayal of a very small space, and I thought that scared people off. Nobody was writing about this complex city, with its problems – problems of drugs, problems of HIV and Aids, problems of social housing. But the centre of the city was like Disneyland – the Castle, the monuments, the museums and the tourist boards saying, ‘Please come and click photographs and then go home. There’s nothing to see behind the scenes.’ I just wanted to say there’s more to Edinburgh than meets the eye.

In a sense, you were an outsider in 1978
I still am. I still feel like an outsider. I didn’t go to school in Edinburgh and it’s a very class conscious city. If you’re at a party, the first question that anybody will ask you is “What school did you go to?” Because that tells a lot about you and what your family life like.

You’ve mentioned that Edinburgh’s a city the size of a town that thinks like a village. Explain that.
That’s what it is. It’s got the amenities of a city. And it’s almost like everybody knows everybody else. And when stuff happens, you hear it on the grapevine. It’s like a tribe.

Glasgow’s not like that?
Glasgow feels more like a proper city. Proper, grown-up city – twice the size, twice the population – a vibrant city, a tingling city that’s very creative. And there has always been this competitive streak between the two cities. Yet they are only 40 miles, that is 60 kms apart. Glasgow had a chip on its shoulder when in the 19th century Edinburgh was no longer the capital. Glasgow was great port for, among other things, the slave trade. The tobacco lords of Glasgow would wear top hats and go to Edinburgh to walk among the poor people.

Sounds like the guys from Bombay! (Laughs) I possibly can’t comment on that. But then Edinburgh became a capital again and it became much more important. There’s still that tension. They are two very different cities. The sense of humour is different. The people are different.

You’ve mentioned the schizophrenic appeal of Edinburgh. We know Scotland here as the land of the Highland Fling and single malts. The bright side. You’ve also written about the dark side. Was this something you ventured out to do?
Well, that was kind of frowned upon in the beginning. When the first books were published, the tourist board wasn’t happy. They thought it would deter tourists.

So they would have rather had Rebus as a sunny, nice guy?
Yeah, a nice guy, having a cappuccino while smoking a Menthol cigarette and ating hummus. Then suddenly there was a shift. Because people started to come to Edinburgh looking for the Edinburgh of Trainspotting, the Edinburgh of Rebus. There are now walking tours for both of them.

Or shooting up and shooting tours… (Laughs) Yeah, maybe. So the tourist board suddenly realised that there were a lot of people coming to Scotland and Edinburgh and they just don’t want the myths and legends and the past. They want to know about the now - what makes the place and its culture. And so, there’s a new kind of tourism that’s come along. You get it even in Sweden with Henning Mankell’s Detective Wallander. There’s now a tour in the town he works in.

Moving to the aspects of drinking…
Oh, you want to move into that aspect (laughs). There’s always a dark side to drink. (Laughs) Is there? I wouldn’t know. If you are genetically predisposed – and the Scandinavians and the Scots and some other cultures…

The Bengalis…
Yes. (Laughs) Drink makes these people maudlin, makes them look back into the glories of the past, not think of the great future ahead. So there is the sense that drink does not always have a positive effect on the Scots. The Scottish government is working hard on changing this culture, the drinking culture. A guy came to visit me from the Shetlands (in northern Scotland) with just a bottle of whisky. It was 10 o’clock in the morning when he said, “You’ll have a drink?” “It’s a bit early. I’m having my Starbucks here,’ I said. And he unscrewed the top from the bottle and crushed the top in his hand because he wasn’t going to need that again. 10 in the fucking morning!

Did you have any?
Only one. (Laughs) As far as I remember, he drank the rest. But drink also functions as a disinhibitor. Some pockets of Scotland are quite shy, not very outgoing, very reticent. Bands that come to Scotland complain, “We never get standing ovations.” Even if people really enjoy a concert, they’re really embarrassed to stand up. So they sit there very quietly. But once you’ve got drink in you, you’re dancing and singing.

It’s that Jekyll and Hyde thing then?
Yes. It’s true. I was a great fan of American fiction and I was reading all these writers, their life stories. All of them were heavy drinkers – Hemingway and Fitzgerald…In my early days I thought that you have to drink heavily to write. But it’s the opposite for me. I can’t write anything. Well, I can write when I’ve had a drink, but it’s terrible. Its rubbish. The writing looks fantastic…until the next morning.

On to music. In Let It Bleed, there’s a scene where Rebus is, as usual, sick and tired of the world and he puts on a Rolling Stones album and he is momentarily in bliss. (“After a drink, he liked to listen to the Stones. Women, relationships and colleagues had come and gone, but the Stones had always been there.”) How much does music turn you on?Like most crime writers I know, crime writers would rather be rock stars.
Just crime writers? I’ve spoken to Ian McEwan, not so much. Martin Amis, no. Salman Rushdie, he’s actually been on stage with U2. My first passion was music, listening to Alice Cooper, Slade and bands like that. I was passionate about music and still am. I’ve just never been in a successful rock band. What I found about writing about music into the book tells you about a character. If I were to visit someone, the first thing I do is look at the bookshelves and the music to see what kind of person he is. Even if someone hasn’t read a Rebus novel, when they read about the music he listens to, he gets a sense who Rebus is: working class, prefers the Stones to the Beatles, a bit rebellious in his youth, and would like to think he’s still a bit rebellious. He listens to Van Morrison or Leonard Cohen, music you prefer to listen on your own, not in a party. He doesn’t go to parties a lot. He’d rather sit at home with a whisky and listen to music and be contemplative. Music’s a nice shorthand way of delineating characters.

Unlike his creator, Rebus missed the punk scene.
Yeah. I was absolutely the right age for punk. I was 17 in 1977. I was in a punk band when I was 18.

The Flying Pigs?
Um, the Dancing Pigs.

Ironic, considering the former lead singer of the Dancing Pigs is now writing about ‘pigs’, you know, cops?
I know. But this wish fulfillment thing came true. In Black and Blue - the Rebus novel about the oil industry – I needed to write about a Greenpeace gig against the oil industry. I needed a band to headline the concert. It could be U2, it could be R.E.M. Then I thought, “Why not the Dancing Pigs?” So in fiction, if not in fact, the Dancing Pigs became a huge band. Which was lovely!

So you tasted rock success only in the book.
Yeah. (Laughs) When I was first in a recording studio, the producer said, “You’re singing flat.” I said, ‘What does that mean?’ But that was what punk would allow you to do. Sing flat. That’s what I thought! The guys in the band thought I was great.

You still like the Cocteau Twins?
Oh yes. That came just after punk. The Cocteau Twins, Joy Division and all of that. Scottish rock music tends to be very left field, experimental, not hugely popular, niche music like Jesus and Mary Chain and recent bands like Mogwai and Boards of Canada, electronica. They have a very passionate fan base without filling stadiums.

You’re quite a passionate listener yourself.
Putting a lot of music in my books has been very useful to me. Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones is a fan; R.E.M. are fans. Everytime I mention Pete Townsend in the books, I get an email from Pete Townsend. The opening scene of The Naming of the Dead has the Who’s Quadrophenia playing at Rebus’ brother’s funeral. I got a very nice email from Pete months later: “I found the scene so emotional that I took a while to read the rest of the book.” It was nice.

You’ve written a graphic novel. Tell me more about that.
It’s about a character who’s been around for 20-odd years, John Constantine of the Hellblazer comic book series. It was made into a not-very-successful film with Keanu Reeves.

Are comic books and graphic novels something you were always interested in?
I used to read them as a kid and I still read them. So when I got an email from DC Comics in America saying, “We believe you’re a fan of comic books. Have you ever considered writing for Batman or Superman?” I wrote back saying, “What has taken you so long, guys? I’ve been waiting years for this.”

Which one would you choose? Batman or Superman?
Batman. I don’t like people who wear their underpants outside their trousers and come from other planets. I like human beings to be my heroes, not superheroes. And John Constantine is a very conflicted, complex character. He’s a human being, almost like a private eye, but he investigates the paranormal. He investigates Hell and suchlike and emanations from Hell. I pitched a few ideas and the one they really liked was a Big Brother-style game show where strange things are happening that aren’t being controlled by the production crew. So they bring in John Constantine to find out what’s happening. It was really good fun, but I probably won’t do it again.

Why is that?
Well, it was the hardest work. I’ve come to the conclusion that novelists are the laziest writers around. We use as many words as we need, hundreds of pages of words and we make the reader do all the work. ‘The man walked into the bar.’ That’s six words. You will put the faces to the people, how many people are in the bar, how big is the bar…you’ll just do all that. But the artist of my comic book lived in Italy and I was never going to meet him. For that, ‘The man walked into the bar’, if that was going into one drawing, I would say to him, “Ok. We’re close-up on the hand that pushes open the door of the bar. The door is open 18 inches. Through that we can see 8 feet away the bar. Behind the bar there’s a bald guy with a bow tie. He’s the barman who’s cleaning a glass. Behind him is a mirror. In the mirror we can see the other drinkers. One woman is wearing a red coat.” All of that. And you’re 'not' the script-writer. You’re the director. Then there’s the second panel. And between the two panels time has passed. So you’re also the editor. So it’s an incredibly different medium. The time it takes to write one comic, I could write three novels.

Do you fancy writing film scripts?
I spent last year in the north with a friend writing a screenplay. Again, it was very hard. There’s a 19th century Scottish novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, (by James Hogg) about a religious zealot in early 18th century Scotland who is told by a stranger - who may or may not be the Devil - that because he’s a chosen of God’s chosen elect, he should basically destroy the infidel. Anyone who doesn’t agree with his religion should be killed and he will be justified in doing so.

You’re doing this for a Danish newspaper?
(Laughs) Yeah, in a cartoon form. You can see the modern resonance. This is very much a novel about a certain Scottish Presbytarianism at that time. It’s a great novel, but very little read, very little known about. So my friend and I said to each other, “Let’s try and do it as a film.” And oh my god! It was so, so difficult. It’s someone else’s work; it’s historical; you’re dealing with a modern audience; and you want as wide an audience as possible. How complex can you make it? Also, you’re never sure of the unreliable narration. So you’re never sure whether his friend is real or imaginary or the Devil. And you have to make those decisions. You can’t really do all three of those in a film. Film is much more literal than a book. We delivered the film script just before Christmas. As soon as I go back to the UK, I’ve got a meeting with the producer. If everybody quite likes it, then we’ll approach a director.

What’s about the ‘Jack Harvey’ books? Why did you write under a pseudonym?

Well, I stole my son’s name. My son’s name is Jack and my wife’s surname is Harvey. My son’s name is Jack Harvey Rankin. I stole two-thirds of his name so that he can become a writer, a Martin Amis to my Kingsley Amis. (Laughs) Well, not really. Actually, we were very poor. The Rebus books weren’t selling. I wasn’t making enough money writing full-time and one kid had come along. The Rebus books were then quite short, taking three-four months to write one. Publishers didn’t want two a year. They had enough trouble selling one a year. So I decided to write a thriller every year along a Rebus novel so that I could make enough money to get by. I didn’t want people to be tricked into buying and thinking that this was another Rebus book. So I used a pseudonym. I had asked my agent at that time, “What sort of pseudonym should I choose?” He said, “Go for the middle of the alphabet. Walk into one of those bookshops and look at the A-to-Z and if your surname is A or Z, you’re in trouble because you’re not on eye-level.”

So what’s a good letter? G, H.
H?! (Fists the air) G, H, I, R, S, T tend to be on eye-level. And it’s true! Also, there was a thriller writer called Jack Higgins and crime writer called John Harvey. Maybe drunk fans of his could get confused and buy a Jack Harvey book. The first copies sold very few copies, so I was back to square one.

Well, square two considering that the Rebus novels took off after Black and Blue. Black and Blue was the breakthrough book. It won the Golden Dagger for the Best Crime Book of the Year and was shortlisted for a prize in America. It sold four times the number of copies as the previous books.

How did you celebrate?
Did you get drink yourself silly? I don’t think I celebrated. To me it was like the end of a long, hard walk. Maybe I had one whisky. I can’t remember. I was probably too busy writing the next book. It still didn’t make it to the Top 10 in the UK. But it gave me an inkling of doing what I think was right. Even as I delivered Black and Blue to my publishers, they said, “Oh, it’s just another Rebus book.” They were getting ready to dump it.

So you can’t ever tell (which book works?)
My publishers didn’t. I knew. My agent knew. I knew it was a better book, a more substantial book. I knew thematically it was more complex. It was better written. I had a real sense that I knew Rebus by now. I could stretch myself. My agent said it was great. It’s only after the Golden Dagger that the publishers went, “Aaah…Ian actually knows what he’s doing.” That’s affirmation.

You live on the same street as writers Alexander McCall Smith and J.K. Rowling. So do you find Rowling rummaging your dustbin, looking for crumpled notes that she can use to write a new Harry Potter book? (Smiles) The last time I saw her, she was writing a Harry Potter encyclopedia. She’s extraordinary! She has this whole universe inside her head. She’s a fan of crime fiction. So it won’t surprise me if she wrote one. I haven’t seen her for a while. She’s very shy and quiet. McCall Smith I see quite a lot. He’s only two houses away.

What do you guys talk about?
Do you talk about writing, about books? You’d be saddened how banal our conversation can get. (Laughs) We actually discuss Kierkegaard. It’s not easy to have a relaxed conversation with Sandy (McCall Smith). You can’t have a light conversation with him as he’s such an intellectual guy. He’s always thinking the big thoughts. The last time I saw him, it was on a night train from London to Edinburgh. We were sitting in the club car with a couple of whiskies and were chatting. Within ten minutes, we were talking about good and evil, the concept of evil, the banality of evil, and how you define evil - that kind of stuff. It was the end of a very long day for me. I wanted to stop him and ask him something like, “What’s your favourite Rolling Stones song?”

What is your favourite Rolling Stones song?
(Laughs) I was hoping you would ask me that. What a surprise. I did ‘Desert Island Discs’, a British radio show where you’re asked to choose eight records you can take with you if you’re stuck on an island. I chose the song, ‘You can’t always get what you want’. But it changes all the time. If you ask me tonight, I would say, um, probably, ‘Midnight rambler’. Or ‘Sympathy for the devil.’ I dunno. I wrote a short story once, just to try and purge the Rolling Stones as I had used their albums for titles for my books. The story was about a journalist who’s there at the recording of ‘Sympathy for the devil’ and who eventually falls into Altamont (the infamous Stones concert on December 6, 1969 where Hell’s Angels, hired as security by the band, killed a member of the audience). So it’s the end of the 60s dream. I had dinner once with Bill Wyman and I said, “Bill, I have this book for you, Beggar’s Banquet (which had that particular short story, ‘Glimmer’ in it)”. He started reading it. Intermittently, he kept saying, “No, that didn’t happen. It wasn’t like that. No. No, Mick didn’t say that.” He couldn’t see the fiction! For him that was his life. Very funny.

Since we’re on this pop quiz mode: Your novel Dead Souls, did you take that title from the Gogol story or the Joy Division song?
It’s definitely Joy Division. It’s a great title. I can’t start a book until I book a title.

So you first come up with the title?
The title might be rejected by the publishers; they might not like it. But I can’t write the book until I’ve got a title. The graphic novel I wrote was called Dark Entries. I’d tried ‘Dark Entries’ three times and my publishers said no, it’s too dark. They didn’t like ‘The Complaints’ (the title of his latest novel): “Terrible title. Very negative. People will walk by because it’s such a terrible title.” And I said, “It can’t be called anything else. Trust me, when I write the book and you see the book, there’s no other possible title for it.” And they agreed when they saw the manuscript. In the (United) States, they sometimes tweak my titles. So Fleshmarket Close, which is a real street in Edinburgh, became Fleshmarket Alley, because the publishers thought that American readers were too stupid to work out that when a guy walks down a close, it’s probably some sort of alley. The greatest problems I have is to translate English into English. Americans will change pavement to sidewalk, the boot of the car becomes the trunk of the car, and Rebus cannot wake up in the morning with a fag in his mouth. (Laughs) Especially with Dark Entries somewhere nearby.

But names are important to you, aren’t they?
Rebus means ‘a picture puzzle’…This was when I was reading a lot of deconstruction, semiotics and all those very tedious new age ideas of literature as a student. I thought the guy solves puzzles so I’ll call him basically ‘Mr Puzzle’, ‘Mr Rebus’. Years later, I met a guy in Edinburgh who was called Joe Rebus – Rey-bus. He was Polish. From which point on, (John) Rebus became Polish. I think it was in Fleshmarket Close when we find out that the guy’s got Polish ancestry. That’s what happens. You’ve got to follow the real world.