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Book twenty-one: Strip Jack #Rankin

The 4th book in the Rebus series sees our leading character back in Edinburgh and in a new relationship with Dr Patience Atkin.  Rebus is without a doubt more comfortable in his native Edinburgh and in this book I would say he is at his most stable so far.  That said, it wouldn’t be Rebus if there weren’t dark clouds up ahead and doubts about his future, or more specifically his and Patience’s future.  Forever tied to his job and unable to put his love life first I found it amusing that a decision about whether to move in with Patience is weighted by whether he continues to be based at the Greater London Road police station or moved to St Leonards.  For those who’ve read subsequent or more recent Rebus books…well you know the outcome.

Of the Rebus books so far I would say Strip Jack is the more straight forward “who dun nit” with a little bit of Rebus intuition thrown in.  The book starts with a raid on an Edinburgh brothel, where amongst the many punters the police find a popular young MP Gregor Jack.  Despite the secrecy of the raid upon exiting the building the road is lined with press.  Something about this doesn’t sit well with Rebus, it just seems too lucky for the press to be there.  When Jack’s wife Elizabeth disappears Rebus can’t help but feel there is a bigger game at foot and starts to explore the social and personal lives of Gregor and Elizabeth Jack and their friends.  A disappearance becomes a murder.  There is pressure on the police to quickly solve it but Rebus  isn’t convinced they’re following the right line of enquiry.  True to himself and like a dog with a bone Rebus won’t give up.  Was Gregor Jack set up? Who can be trusted? Where was Elizabeth murdered? Step by step Rebus unravels the story in a way only he can.

Without becoming uncontrollable in twists and turns there are enough red herrings and sub-plots in Strip Jack to keep us all guessing.  The cast is larger than previous books, giving Rankin an opportunity to develop more colourful and varied characters and in doing so giving Rebus more reflections to compare and judge himself against.  With this book we are seeing a world evolve around the Inspector.  In subsequent correspondence Ian Rankin has spoken about his decision with this book to take Rebus out of a fictional Edinburgh and into a more real one.  In the short series so far geography and in particular Edinburgh and its surrounding areas have proven to be a key building block of the books.  These books more so than any other series I have read place a city at its heart.  Edinburgh is as much a reoccurring character as Brian Holmes, Gill Templer, “Farmer Watson” and in the later books Siobhan Clarke and “Big Ger Cafferty”.  Whether it is the return from London, or this decision to make Edinburgh more real, in Strip Jack Rebus feels more grounded and secure in his role at the station, his stage in life and quite possibly in his romantic life.

It goes without saying that I’m a huge fan of Ian Rankin’s work, I wouldn’t be re-reading the series from start if I wasn’t.  I really enjoyed this book and felt like you could feel Rankin getting to grips with his plot structure, character development and starting to bring multiple dimensions to his main man.  A review of the book I recently read seemed to lament on the absence of the gruff, self-loathing critical rebel we know from later books.  If you’re not reading the books in order I can understand why someone would question Rebus’ approach in this book but I would say to them, start at the beginning, travel with him, because only then can you truly understand the infuriating loner who wins the sympathy of readers time and time again.



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Book five: Hide and Seek #Rankin

A junkie is found dead in a squat on one of Edinburgh’s sink estates. Laid out in a cross-like position, there are candles placed around him and a five-pointed star has been painted on the living room wall. Something about the case just doesn’t make sense to Rebus and as he begins his investigation it leads him to a dark and sleazy underworld of Edinburgh.

For this blog, rather than review the book I wanted to share the Introduction by Ian Rankin which is included in the 2008 re-publication of the book. I find it very interesting to hear an author speak about their work, their inspirations, influences and growth. In this introduction Rankin discusses things that influenced the writing of Hide and Seek, the interesting part being the influences he has only become aware of on reflection, for example the impact of his time spent living in London on his writing. It is also interesting to hear about how Rebus has grown and changed for Rankin. Across the years and many books Rankin has refined his main character, although refined is probably the wrong word as he remains rough around the edges.

I hope you enjoy reading Rankin’s thoughts as much I did.

Hide and Seek

An Introduction by Ian Rankin

A year or two after Hide and Seek was published, there was a break-in at Edinburgh’s police headquarters. Among the items rumoured to have been stolen was a list of names, the names of men prominent in Edinburgh society. Allegations had been made against these men, allegations that they had been using rent boys, leaving themselves open to blackmail, and a police inquiry had been instituted. There were enough similarities between the real-life case and aspects of my novel that people stopped me in the street to ask how I’d know so much so soon. I would explain that my sources had to be protected.

There were no sources, of course: I’d made the story up.

I saw Hide and Seek very much as a companion piece to Knots and Crosses. Reviewers had failed to pick up on the earlier book’s use of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as a template. I was determined to try once more to drag Stevenson’s story back to its natural home of Edinburgh and to update the theme for a modern-day audience. In fact, the book’s eventual working title was ‘Hyde and Seek’, but only after I’d ditched ‘Dead Beat’ (at the behest of my agent, to whom the book was eventually dedicated). The final version of Hide and Seek opens with a quote from Jekyll and Hyde and goes on to use quotes from Stevenson’s book at the opening of each section. Moreover, I lifted many of the character names directly from Stevenson’s masterpiece – Enfield, Poole, Carew, Lanyon – while Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde provides Detective Inspector Rebus with his night-time reading, when he’s not busy mulling over his latest case.

Not that I was keen for readers to get the connection or anything…

Between Knots and Crosses and the events of Hide and Seek, Rebus has been promoted from detective sergeant – his one and only promotion in the series so far. Other changes have taken place. Rebus has a new sidekick called Brian Holmes (a none-too-subtle nod to another Edinburgh writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). And Edinburgh is changing, too, as new money moves in. The book was written in 1988 and 1989. By then, I was living in London, at the height of Thatcherism. Red braces and Moet were all the rage. In some wine bars, rising property values seemed to be the only currency of conversation. I’d been living in London a couple of years and not making much of a go of it. My wife and I lived in a maisonette in Tottenham, and have failed to find full-time writing a lucrative enough proposition, I was working as a magazine journalist in Crystal Palace, entailing a three-hour commute each weekday. I seemed to be surrounded by people more successful than me, people with fat salaries or five-figure publishing deals. My situation at the time seem to me now to explain the bitted edge to much of the writing in Hide and Seek, and is reflected in Brian Holmes’s memories of his few student months in London (‘a season spent in hell’, as he himself remembers it).

The novel did not come hard on the heels of Knots and Crosses: there had been two other novels in between. One was a spy adventure, Watchman; the other, Westwind, was my attempt at a techno-thriller. The latter, however, was struggling to find a publisher of any kind, which the former had sold a scant five hundred copies in hardcover. Hide and Seek was actually begun in the summer of 1988, but failed to make much headway. My job got in the way, as did attempts to turn my first novel, The Flood, into a useable screenplay, and various frustrating efforts to get work as a scriptwriter on The Bill. I was also reviewing books most weeks for a new broadsheet called Scotland on Sunday.

One other reason why I may have held back on a second Rebus novel: plans had been afoot to film the first one, with Leslie Grantham (Dirty Den in EastEnders) as Rebus. This plan eventually fell through in January 1989. My guess had been than Grantham would want the action of Knots and Crosses relocated to London. Now that he would not be taking Rebus to the screen, I felt free to write a second Edinburgh-based adventure for my character. The final draught of the book was completed in May.

It’s a less overwrought work than its predecessor, the prose leaner, though the Rebus we meet is still not the fully formed character of later books. For one thing, he’s still too well-read quoting from Walt Whitman – someone I’d studied at university but of whom Rebus couldn’t really be expected to have had knowledge.   He also quotes from the Romantic poets and listens to Radio 3 in his car. On his hi-fi at home, there’s jazz, but also The Beatles’ White Album (I’d soon have him preferring the Stones). My own time as a hi-fi journalist is reflected in the expensive Linn turntable owned by one character, while a scene inside the library at the University of Edinburgh takes Holmes to the fifth floor, which I’d haunted during my three years as a postgraduate student.

There are other literary references in the book: to James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and to the poet George MacBeth, who had shared a writers’ retreat with me a couple of years before. A character from The Flood pops up in the first few pages, and Rebus and Holmes both visit the west-central Fife, where the inspector and I grew up. It’s noticeable to me now that Rebus in particular is not as cynical about his old hunting ground as he was when paying his respects in Knots and Crosses. Maybe enough of my spleen had been vented. London was the enemy now – London, and the harsh materialism I seemed to have found there.

Besides, I had many happy memories of my childhood, memories rekindled by the death of my father in February 1990, while I was in the midst of proofreading Hide and Seek. By the time the book was ready for publication, Miranda and I had decidedly had enough of London and Mrs Thatcher. We were making plans to live in France, praying that my writing would start earning enough to turn the dream into a reality. And once we’d left Tottenham behind,    I’d be able to put some of my own feelings about the capital into words, by taking John Rebus to London on a case.

A case that would become Tooth and Nail.

A final word to the wise: there’s a question of sorts left hanging at the end of Hide and Seek. The curious will find an answer – also of sorts – at the end of chapter four of Resurrection Men. I only realised it was there when I reread the book recently. Don’t say I never share anything…


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