RETIREMENT doesn’t seem to agree with John Rebus. For readers, that’s a good thing.
This month, Ian Rankin returns to the brutal streets of Edinburgh for his 31st book, Even Dogs in the Wild. The book is a treat for Rankin fans — it not only presents a new case for the beloved and somewhat-retired Rebus, but also places him in an all-star team of Rankin protagonists, alongside fellow cops Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox.
When a well-known local lawyer ends up dead with only an intimidating note as a clue, Clarke reaches out to Rebus, who’s more than happy to dust himself off to lend a hand. The case pulls the two down into the dankest corners of the city, and — along with fellow DI Fox — into an uncertain, gray reality where friends might be foes and enemies become unlikely allies. A compulsively readable crime novel, Dogs doesn’t coast on the author’s sterling reputation — it propels Rebus and his supporting cast forward to create a textured, fast-paced adventure that spends plenty of time in the deadly, primal underbelly of not only Edinburgh, but the mind itself.
I got the chance to discuss Even Dogs in the Wild with Rankin over email. This interview was edited for clarity.
Rankin starts his US tour with a stop in Los Angeles. He will be at Book Soup to discuss and sign Even Dogs in the Wild on January 26 at 7 p.m.
ALEX SEGURA: Even Dogs in the Wild is your 31st book, and it features Rebus and two of your other best-known creations, Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox. Was it tricky writing them all together? Did you set out with that idea in mind?
IAN RANKIN: I set out with three storylines, and decided who would be the best character to “front” each of them. Luckily for me, Rebus, Clarke, and Fox sprang to mind!
Even Dogs in the Wild finds Rebus in a somewhat new role — bored with retirement, he’s now consulting for the force. I imagine this opens up a new set of story possibilities for him in that he’s sanctioned but can also move between the lines a bit. What made this the right move for Rebus?
The Rebus books have always been set in something equating to real time (though I’ve slowed the clock a bit recently). I reckoned Rebus had to be hitting 65, and that meant retirement, so I then mulled over what this would mean for him, and how he would face it. It presents challenges of course, because he is no longer going to be called to murder scenes and so on, but I do relish the occasional challenge. As he is no longer a cop, he can blithely ignore the usual rules and protocols. Then again, age is against him, so he must use wiles and street smarts rather than physical heft.
Dogs not only features Rebus, Clarke, and Fox but “Big Ger” Cafferty, who dates back to the third book in the series. Can you talk a little bit about his role in the book, and what it was like pairing him with Rebus as almost-allies?
Almost the first image I had was of someone pointing a gun at Cafferty. He needs to know the who and the why — but going to the cops would be seen as weakness, which is where Rebus comes in. Rebus is no longer a cop so Cafferty can reach out to him. At the same time, we are never sure what long game or games Cafferty may be playing. Is he a spent force as a gangster, or is there fight left in him? This gives us parallels with Rebus’s own situation, which makes for intriguing and productive interplay between the two characters. Are they friends or enemies? I’m not sure I know the answer to that …
That’s part of the fun, though, I think. I had the chance to reread the first three Rebus novels earlier this year and — not surprisingly — they held up very well, and it was very interesting to see how Rebus started in contrast to where he is now. How do you look back on his arc as a character? Are there things you’d change or that you’re particularly fond of?
I’d make him younger from the get-go! That way I wouldn’t be giving myself so many headaches regarding his aging. Book one was meant to be his only outing, so I crammed it with backstory — all of which I then had to remember and take into account during the series. Do those first few books really stand up? I’ve not read them in years. They seemed an apprenticeship to me, one which finished around the time of Black and Blue.
They certainly do. It was a treat to go back and experience the origins of Rebus. Dogs also features two cases crashing into one another — which strikes me as much more realistic, as detectives are often saddled with multiple things to work on at any given time. As a writer, what are the challenges you face when trying to weave through two competing narratives like that? Especially with so many different viewpoint characters angling for airtime?
I like starting a book with two or more storylines, not really knowing if they will meet at any point in the story. I want Clarke and Fox to have some substance, so it’s good that they get their own cases which show up their strengths — and weaknesses — as detectives, and against which we can compare and contrast Rebus’s own methods.
Music has always been a big part of the series, and I enjoy hearing you talk about what you’re listening to. Were there any particular albums or artists that helped fuel the writing of Even Dogs in the Wild?
The book’s title comes from a song by a 1980s Scottish band called The Associates. But when I’m writing I tend to have instrumental music playing — anything with lyrics and I’m focusing on those rather than my own words. Brian Eno is good. Tangerine Dream, Boards of Canada, laid-back jazz (Coleman Hawkins; Art Pepper). Those sounds help me stay in a bubble, away from the real world.
The introduction of characters like Clarke and Fox over the run of the series helps show Rebus in different lights, which in turn seems to add to his longevity as a series character while also letting you create new, vibrant players. At this point, are you less concerned with having a final chapter in mind? Is Rebus’s story a bit more open-ended?
I thought my days with Rebus were over at the end of Exit Music. But he insisted on crashing back into my consciousness five years later. I’ve not considered the next/final end point. I’m just always grateful when the idea for another book appears. The next one feels like Rebus will play a central role, but the one after that … who knows?
I imagine that, even after 31 books, each novel presents its own unique challenges. What can you say about the process of creating Even Dogs in the Wild? How does it compare to your past work?
Dogs was written remarkably quickly. I’d lost a number of friends much my age in 2012–2013 so took 2014 off to smell the roses, as it were. The break seemed to work, in that Dogs came roaring out of me. I had very little plot when I started — a botched assassination; a treasure hunt — and no idea where those stories would lead — but the story flew and I just hung on to it for dear life.
Alex Segura is a novelist and comic book writer. He is the author of the Miami crime novel Silent City, the first in a series featuring Pete Fernandez. Silent City and its sequel, Down the Darkest Street, are out this year via Polis Books.