Is Ian Rankin all that?

This will probably come across as a sour grapes rant, and to hell with it, I don’t care. I’ve just watched a documentary in a series on ITV3 about British crime writers. This one was about Ian Rankin, the Scottish author of books about Inspector Rebus.

Now I’ve just read a Rebus novel while on holiday, and I have to say that in all honesty I wasn’t that impressed. It was the second Rebus novel I’ve read. Maybe I’ve surfeited too much on a heady diet of American crime writing, but I thought it was heavy, dour and not that well-written. The plot moved along at a lick, but it was littered with coincidences and incidents that were really incidental – that is, they were not central to the storyline and were left hanging. They were there to add ‘colour’ to the main story but had no life of their own. For example, Rebus’ ne’er do well brother had come out of prison and was staying at the house that Rebus owned but had been renting out to students. One night, the brother answered the door and was kidnapped, later to be found hanging upside down hanging from a bridge. This was intended as a ‘warning’ to Rebus about the case he was investigating. The problem for me was that the state of the brother afterwards was not believable in the slightest. He hung around the house in a state of shock, reading books on hypnotherapy – a complete change in his character. It seemed that Rankin liked the idea of the incident, but then didn’t know how to deal with the brother afterwards.

Similarly, at the end of the book, one of the chief villains threw himself into a huge vat of beer rather than face the criminal investigation coming his way. Again, this was an event that was simply not credible.

Of course all books – let alone crime novels – have to include events that are beyond the norm, otherwise they become documentaries. But there were too many of them here. They went beyond ‘local colour’ into the realm of pure incredibility.

What’s more, the writing wasn’t that good. I don’t have the book to hand, so I can’t quote examples, but I noted many instances where the similes and metaphors he used were tired clichés. He created a couple of interesting characters – Rebus amongst them – but the claims that were made for him by other participants in the TV program were ludicrous when you put him against the real giants of American crime writing. The main tone was ‘He’s a great writer who just happens to write crime novels.’ Well, no. When you put him against someone like Ian McEwan, or Martin Amis, or Cormac McCarthy, that boat just doesn’t float.

Interestingly, Rankin claimed to have learned from the American crime writers that he read. He recognised that when he looked at British writers they usually wrote ‘cosies’ set in country houses where amateur detectives solved the crimes and put the world back to rights. He didn’t want to be part of that world, which was fair enough. But I hardly think that a high-ranking British copper – which is what Rebus is – fits into the same category as anti-heroes like Sam Spade or The Continental Detective of Dashiell Hammett. However much he kicks against the system, he’s still in the system. And he fits into the current British dedication to the police procedural – whether it be Dalglish or Morse or Jane Tennison or – God help us – Dixon of Dock Green (no relation).

So I just don’t get it. Val McDermid made the point during the show that ‘genre’ writing like crime writing is derided by the literary establishment because it doesn’t understand what’s really going on in the genre these days. That’s true. But you won’t find out what’s really going on by looking at British crime writing. If it’s not a police procedural, it’s a forensic pathologist solving the crime. You need to look at the Americans – James Lee Burke, Jefferson Parker, George Pelecanos, Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosley. These are established names of the same vintage as Rankin, if not a little older. But they’re still writing books that are more vital and connected to the modern world. And are much, much better written.

Sorry, Ian.

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One Comment on “Is Ian Rankin all that?”

  1. Bob Says:

    Hey a new post at last – and a good one. Only had to wait a year.


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