It was a full house at the Centretown United Church last Thursday evening, as crime fiction aficionados gathered to hear Ian Rankin discuss his new novel, Even Dogs in the Wild . The book is his twentieth (yes, you read that correctly) novel about John Rebus, an Edinburgh police detective who Rankin says jumped into his head twenty years ago as a fully-formed character complete with an ex-wife, teenage daughter and cynical world view. Over the years, both Rankin and Rebus have matured —now in his mid-sixties, Rebus has come out of retirement to solve another crime.
The evening’s discussion was hosted by Peggy Blair, a crime writer based in Ottawa, who has Rankin to thank for helping her get her start as a writer. She began by telling the story of how the pair first became acquainted; following a chance meeting in an English pub five years ago, Rankin’s generosity led to Blair being represented by Rankin’s agent which resulted in her subsequent debut on the Frankfurt Book Fair’s hot list. After learning about Blair’s start in publishing, Rankin then discussed his beginnings as an author. After graduating from the University of Edinburgh in 1982, he was supposed to be working towards his PhD in Scottish Literature. He was planning to write his thesis on Muriel Spark, whose book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie , Rankin cites as one of his favourites. However, he spent most of his time writing fiction instead. Though his very first novel never saw the light of day, his second, The Flood, was published in 1986 and was followed a year later by his first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses .
Rankin never planned to write a second Rebus book – he actually intended for the character to be killed at the end of the first novel – but when sales of his other books were dwindling, his publisher encouraged him to bring the detective back. Rankin never imagined himself as a crime writer —he dreamed of penning “the great Scottish novel” and was initially even surprised to see his novels in the crime section of the bookstore. However, after receiving an invitation from the Crime Writers’ Association to join them, he couldn’t deny it any longer. Over the years he has received four Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards, including the prestigious Diamond Dagger. Rankin and Blair discussed the concept of crime genre fiction and how literary fiction and crime fiction do not need to be mutually exclusive. Rankin raised the point that the popular Harry Potter series features many of the same tropes as crime and mystery novels; an interesting comparison considering the fact that Harry Potter also ages along with his book series, just like John Rebus.
Rankin lamented the publishing industry of twenty years ago, before the rise of e-publishing and social media. He said that he is completely unfamiliar with the current concept of e-publishing, it is not the world he knows, and that if anyone were to ask him for advice on how to get started as an author now he wouldn’t have a clue. I found these comments particularly interesting as I completed an MA in Publishing in 2013, and a number of my classes were focused on the digital presence of the author and how the Internet has allowed writers to reach readers in increasingly new and different ways. I think it is important for newer writers to curate an online presence in order to market themselves; however, this is something Rankin need not worry about. With many years of successful novels behind him, now the strength of his name alone sells books around the world.