While laid-up in the hospital for more than a month with severe nerve and spine damage, I had the opportunity to do a good bit of reading. In the batch of books I asked my family to bring in to the hospital were a couple of Ian Rankin’s crime novels.
I enjoy Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels partly because they are well written and interesting, and partly because they take place in Scotland.
I served on a Navy harbor tugboat at the U.S. nuclear submarine base at Holy Loch, Scotland in 1974 and 1975. Back then, Ian Rankin was only a "wee lad," as they say in Scotland.
Being of Scot-Welsh blood on my father’s side, I felt quite at home there. In addition to the blood tie, I was and am a student of history and I’ve always been interested in Scottish and British history. We share a "special relationship" with the United Kingdom. The United States and the United Kingdom have been close allies through the two world wars and right up to our current war on terrorism.
I traveled all over Scotland during my Navy tour of duty, from Inverness in the Highlands to the capital city of Edinburgh in the Lowlands. I also kept a weekend flat (apartment) in Glasgow.
The country has God-awful winter weather and the food is much too bland for my taste when compared to the Italian food I was raised on in South Philadelphia (my mother was Italian), but I found the Scots to be a friendly and charming people. I also found the country to be nearly crime-free, at least by American standards.
Even so, as a serious student of crime, I followed what there was of a crime scene. Through a girlfriend, I met a police constable and over many a pint we had many discussions about crime in Scotland. He also drove me about the city of Glasgow when off duty and pointed out places and people of interest.
To return the favor, I often spoke of American organized crime, which fascinated him. I also met some local toughs and a few "villains" (what the British call criminals) while pub-crawling through Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Although many years have passed since I left Scotland, I’m still interested in the country and the people.
Which brings me to Ian Rankin and Detective Inspector John Rebus of the Lothian and Borders Police in Edinburgh. Rankin’s character has battled Scottish street crime bosses like Morris Gerald "Big Ger" Cafferty, serial killers and corrupt politicians and business people. He also fights his police bosses. They know him to be an effective investigator, yet he often goes too far in his pursuits and ruffles official feathers.
Rebus is a troubled character. He experiences guilt for his failed marriage and his failure as a father to his only daughter. He finds some solace in music, excessive smoking and drinking - and in his job as a detective. He is a loner with few friends among the police.
Although I’m generally bored with the too typical troubled, maverick loner cop who breaks rules (and laws) in crime fiction, Rankin’s Rebus seems fresh and different.
Rebus is a veteran of a British army parachute regiment and served in Northern Ireland during the "troubles" there. He became a member of the elite commando group, the Special Air Service (SAS), but later resigned. His army bosses arranged to find him employment as a policeman.
American crime writer James Ellroy called Rankin "The King of Tartan Noir," and according to a leading British newspaper, Rankin has been praised not only for his gritty realism, but also for his exceptional depiction of contemporary Scotland. Rankin covers much more than the crime scene. He covers the various worlds of government, business, the clergy and the working people of Scotland.
"Edinburgh is the perfect setting for crime writing," Rankin has said. "It has a split personality – on the one hand it is the city of history and museums and royalty, but at the same time there is this feeling that behind the thick walls of those Georgian townhouses there are all sorts of terrible things happening."
Rankin was born in 1960, graduated from the University of Edinburgh and published his first Rebus novel, "Knots & Crosses," in 1987. He has gone on to become the United Kingdom’s number one best-selling crime writer. His newest novel, "A Question of Blood," will soon be published in the U.S.
So if you’re interested in reading a series of crime novels with a setting other than New York City or LA, I heartily recommend Ian Rankin.
Note: The above column originally appeared in The Orchard Press Online Mystery Magazine in 2003.