As part of this year’s London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre, Sir Ian Rankin graced Queen Elizabeth Hall to discuss his new piece, ‘The Rise’, in conversation with best-selling author, Steve Cavanagh.
Back in my home-town, on the tall, wooden cabinet in the living room of my family home, is a shelf containing a cluttered collection of handmade pottery, nostalgic photos, and candles that my ma refuses to light. When I was young, however, this shelf contained rows upon rows of crime fiction books, more specifically the likes of Harlan Coben, Melinda Leigh, and Ian Rankin. This was my mother’s escape to a different world. Walking into Queen Elizabeth Hall, I was given the opportunity to experience all that cultivated my ma during those years.
The event was kitted out with a huge screen on stage behind Rankin and Cavanagh, of which large-font live captions were displayed throughout the entire seminar. Though the live captioning did occasionally find issues with Rankin’s strong Scottish accent, resulting in some chuckles from the crowd, the event was overall very accessible for those with sight or hearing difficulties. The demographic was on the older side which created an atmosphere more relaxed than charged— this audience wanted to hear what Rankin had to say, and I can’t pretend I was any different.
Photo by Hamish Brown, Courtesy of Southbank Centre and by Molly Whiting
The Scotsman established himself in an armchair on stage, a can of Camden Pale Ale by his side, and began like a family friend popping over for a cup of tea. Cavanagh and Rankin spoke about family life, moving house, and how life is changing for the pair. Rankin tells the audience of his previous perspective of London from poverty, and his later view from the perspective of having some money, emphasising gratitude and astonishment, “Some people never experience this.” He appears a man of the people.
Ian Rankin himself grew up without excessive wealth. His father was a greengrocer and his mother worked in a factory, and he has often spoken outwardly about the tightness of money in his childhood. When he became financially stable as an author, he started paying back to those in need, donating over one million pounds to charity over the course of 2015 to 2020, and no doubt more since. The down-to-earth man sitting on stage isn’t a character.
He is most well-known for his best-selling crime fiction series, ‘Inspector Rebus’, which follows John Rebus, an Edinburgh policeman, in his gritty crime solving and avoidance of personal problems. The book series is dark, twisted, and compelling in so many ways it has won both the CWA Macallan Gold Dagger for Fiction, and the MWA Edgar, as well as being shortlisted for a variety of other prestigious awards. During the seminar, Rankin reveals he strove to use the crime series to investigate the real-life internal problems within our MET police. Disclaiming that he cannot answer the many questions surrounding crime and morality in our society, he says, “All I can do is make stuff up…I can’t answer questions or know what to think about these problems, but when I write I feel better.”
Rankin went on to divulge the many tweets he received over lockdown asking after what Rebus would do during the global pandemic, to which he revealed he felt compelled to answer with a narrative that he could put out to readers. Repeatedly throughout the seminar, one got the sense that Rebus, amongst other characters, live on in Rankin’s mind as if they are external and tangible in our real world, even when their story is not being told.
Finally we come to the main event and the reason Sir Ian Rankin visited Southbank Centre; his new work, ‘The Rise’. Young and environmentally-conscious Gish, and moments-off-retirement, fatherly Milton are the lead detectives on this murder case within a luxury high-rise in West London. With some of the world’s most elite under one roof, the pair must quickly find the culprit before they can escape under the guise of their excessive wealth and diplomatic power.
As part of the £15-£25 ticket for the event, ticket-holders were given access to the ebook copy of ‘The Rise’ to download on Kindle through Amazon Originals, with the piece only existing in this form. Rankin says that “It started as a short story but kept stretching, only never made it to a novel”, and so it sits at around 100 pages depending on your device. He emphasises that this extended short story length “gave the characters the chance to become three-dimensional.” His inspiration for this piece, he says, was found by walking around West London, people-watching with a twist. He would spot a person on the street and ask himself, ‘If that person died right now, who killed them? And why?’ When Rankin came up with young Gish, he decided she would be the focal protagonist simply by thinking, “You’re interesting, I like you, and I’ll keep you around.” He went on to say that he liked Gish’s character so much that he’s contemplating extending this story, or perhaps even writing a separate piece for her in the future.
Photo by Molly Whiting and by Mosman Library (licenced under CC BY 2.0)
This discussion on Rankin’s sources of inspiration and influence took up a lot of the seminar, and was well-received by the audience. He presented himself as a very average bloke, someone you’d see popping to the pub, or walking the dog, but when he spoke of his inspiration you could glimpse something shining out from underneath his everyday exterior. Rankin professes, “When I’m getting ready to write a book, the book starts channelling stuff to me.” He goes on to explain that the topics, images, and ideas that he is basing said work on starts appearing in his everyday life; the niche topic of a piece of nonfiction sent to him for a quote, or a newspaper article in a magazine he coincidentally opens. The magic of storytelling was writhe in these moments of the event, with myself amongst other budding writers in the audience enthralled with this brief peek into the life we strive to have for ourselves.
Rankin was not only endearing and engaging, but he knew how to get a laugh out of the crowd. Besides commentary throughout of his wild, drunken times in America, and his answer of “death is knocking” when asked why his novels have gotten considerably shorter, he shines light on the reality of being an author with ‘The Rise’, rousing the audience with, “It’s very visual! If Hollywood is watching, it’s very visual!”
Rankin has always been outspoken of the reality of being an author, specifically in terms of earning a living. During the event, he repeatedly refers back to the sellability of a novel, or short story, and the importance of such, but also stating that “A lot of selling is writing the right book at the right time.” Perhaps it is this uncertainty in getting published that explains Rankin’s repeated references to getting novels turned into TV series after publication. He discusses the few Rebus adaptations and how they came about, and prospective writers were given a depiction of how instrumental these TV and movie adaptations may be in their future finances.
Steve Cavanagh poses some thoughtful questions on Rankin near the end of the seminar, particularly on how the growth of technology has affected literature, and the future of the crime fiction genre. While Rankin does emphasise the perfection of the short story for our current society, noting our attention span and the length of a tube journey, he focuses much more on questions regarding the future of the crime fiction genre. Firstly he questioned the lack of police procedural crime novels being published in recent years compared to when he began in 1986, seemingly replaced by the magnitude of psychological thrillers hitting the shelves. His justification was that the younger generation of writers have been “put off” writing this style of crime fiction because of the extensive knowledge one must have of Black Lives Matter and other political nuances in the current policing industry, stressing that allocating this time might be too difficult a thought. But he then questions the audience, “or is psychological thriller just in?”
He asks, if traditional crime fiction involves murder and potentially gore, are thrillers more popular now because we want comfort blankets after lockdown? Yet dark psychological thrillers involve a growing tension where no one trusts anybody because of governmental, political, and social corruption. Rankin and Cavanagh both question, “Is this why paranoia and dark conspiracy theories are so popular now?” By the end of the seminar, neither authors nor audience had any idea of the answer, but the theatre was whirring with so many theories and thoughts, it was sure to fill each of our minds on our commute home.
As the minutes ran out, all ears were poised to catch any mutterings of Rankin’s current and future work. He jokes, “This has been my sabbatical year. Wife’s orders. She says, ‘You’re either taking a year off or we’re getting divorced’, and I spoke to my accountant and he says, ‘Take the year off, it’ll be cheaper.’” The audience’s anticipation peaked as he strikes up again, stating he’s got an “itch” to write now that he’s back, revealing that he needs to deliver a book by June 2024. He drops his final teaser in the last moments of stage-time, finishing his can of IPA and revealing that the next book is indeed a Rebus novel. The crowd was ecstatic.
Not only was it a pleasure to attend the event, but it was a pleasure to read ‘The Rise’. The story is compelling and twists you in every direction only to come back on itself the second you get comfortable. Lead detectives, Gish and Milton, are captivating; with Gish being refreshing and a personal favourite, it’s no wonder Rankin wants to write about her more. As an Amazon Original, the piece can only be found on their Amazon and Kindle sites, but that shouldn’t stop you delving in over a cup of tea and some McVities.
I might not have known too deeply of Ian Rankin and his world as I entered the event, but as I walked out of the Queen Elizabeth Hall I felt connected to this corner of literature in a crucial way, and I was grateful to experience my ma’s literary world, even if just for a moment.
This article is part of STRAND's coverage of London Literature Festival 2023.
Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor