Ian Rankin Switches To A New Hero In 'Complaints'

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:56 pm

Detective John Rebus of the Edinburgh police force has retired after 17 novels and a slew of short stories. His creator, Scottish author Ian Rankin, has now written a new book with a new protagonist, a cop who works in the division of internal affairs — in other words, a cops who chases cops. The book, The Complaints, feels like it has the potential to become a new series.

Because of Rebus' popularity, readers will inevitably compare Malcolm Fox, The Complaints' protagonist, with their beloved detective. Rebus gained a reputation for being a bit more rough-and-tumble, while Fox, Rankin says, is the kind of cop who drinks soft drinks at the bar.

Rankin sees why readers would make the comparison, as both cops work in Edinburgh, and their stories are intimately tied to the city (where, incidentally, Rankin also lives). But, he says, there's a big difference between the homicide unit and internal affairs.

"You couldn't be a cop like Rebus and work [in internal affairs]," Rankin tells Linda Wertheimer on Morning Edition. "You can't be a loner, you can't be a sort of vigilante, you can't break the rules — you've got to work well on a team."

In short, you have to be a different kind of person than Rebus to work in a department that does surveillance on other cops, investigating claims of misdeeds by members of the force itself. Fox tends to be hated by everybody, police and villains alike.

But Fox's personality, though less brazen than Rebus', also lends itself to be more sympathetic and amenable to a reader. He works mostly as what Rankin calls a "professional voyeur," watching people in order to build up a case against them and then passing the information along elsewhere. When he falls under suspicion himself, however, Fox suddenly needs to shed his passive tendencies and become proactive.

"He's a kind of gentleman," Rankin explains. "He's a bear of a man, who actually has to turn into something more like a fox."

A Retirement Party Come Too Soon?

Fox's redeeming qualities aside, many fans still clamor for more of Detective Rebus and wonder why Rankin has switched gears. The author explains that he wanted to have Rebus' story unfold in real time, in order to chart the changes in society and the changes to the city of Edinburgh throughout the series.

One day, he received a text message from a policeman friend who asked how old Rebus was. Book one was published in 1987, and Rebus was 40 — making the character 55 or 56 at that time. The cop reminded Rankin that detectives in Edinburgh have to retire at 60; and Rankin calculated that he had about three books left for the aging cop.

Rankin wasn't tired of Rebus (and he doesn't think Rebus was tired with him), and he still holds the possibility open that the detective could return someday.

"I know exactly what he's doing," Rankin muses. "He's working in a cold case review unit, which exists in Edinburgh, staffed by three retired police detectives and one serving police detective, and they just look at old, unsolved cases."

Rebus could make a cameo in Malcolm Fox's books, Rankin says, where Fox's internal affairs crew may investigate Rebus' work, or, he teases, he could write an entirely new Rebus novel.

"There's lots of possibilities," Rankin says. "It kind of depends on what stories jump out at me."

'Edinburgh's The Main Character'

A character from Rankin's previous novels that returns with full force in The Complaints is the city of Edinburgh itself. Rankin points to its extraordinary financial history, "stretching back down the centuries," as a point of interest for future stories. Fifteen to 20 percent of the jobs in Edinburgh depend on the financial center, and so the Royal Bank of Scotland's financial troubles greatly affect the city.

"When the Royal Bank of Scotland looked to be 12 hours away from filing for bankruptcy, that was a cataclysmic thing for the city of Edinburgh," Rankin says. "And I wanted to explore what that kind of economy does to a city when it seems to implode."

Turns out the financial crisis can have an impact on all sectors of the economy — even the illegal parts. Rankin says that even "the hard boys" have to put their money somewhere, and the dynamic of big-time crime having a fallout from the economic crisis interested him for his novel.

"Unlike an awful lot of depositors, you have the means to try and force people to give that money back," he says.

For his next novel, though, Rankin decided to venture outside Scotland's capital to a town 20 or 30 miles north, called Fife. It happens to be the writer's hometown, and he has realistic expectations on the kind of reception that book might get from his old neighborhood:

"Having managed to annoy lots of people in Edinburgh about the way I write about the place and saying it's crime-ridden, I'm now going to annoy lots of people back in my hometown."

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Detective Inspector John Rebus of Edinburgh CID has retired after 17 novels and a slew of short stories. His creator, Ian Rankin, has written some new books with new protagonists, one book set in the world of very expensive art, as well as a paranormal investigator who appears in an intense and beautifully drawn graphic novel.

But his newest character is a cop who works in what we in this country call Internal Affairs - cops who chase cops. And that book, "The Complaints," feels like part one of a new series.

Ian Rankin joins us from NPR New York.


Mr. IAN RANKIN (Author, "The Complaints"): Hi. Thanks.

WERTHEIMER: Now, your new book is called "The Complaints." The hero is Malcolm Fox. Obviously everybody compares Fox to your very popular character Rebus. You want to do compare and contrast for us?

Mr. RANKIN: Yeah. I mean, I can see why people would think that. They're both cops and they both work in Edinburgh. But the interesting thing to me about the Complaints Department, the Internal Affairs, is that you couldn't be a cop like Rebus and work there. You can't be a loner. You can't be a sort of vigilante. You can't break the rules. You've got to work well on a team. You've got to be whiter than white. So I didn't think there'd be too many comparisons.

It was nice for me, right from the start, that I knew that he would have to be a different kind of person to Rebus to work in - to do the job that he does, where he's hated by everybody - whether it's people on the police force or whether it's villains. And where he operates almost as a spy, you know, setting up surveillance operations that bank cops don't know are going on.

WERTHEIMER: Could you just read a little paragraph, which talks a bit about the complaints?

Mr. RANKIN: Yeah.

(Reading) A lot of cops asked the Complaints the same question: How can you do it? How can you spit on your own kind? These were officers you'd worked with, or might work with in future. These were, it was often said, the good guys. But that was the problem right there: What did it mean to be good? Fox had puzzled over that one himself, staring into the mirror behind the bar as he nursed another soft drink.

WERTHEIMER: There's the difference between John Rebus and Malcolm Fox.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RANKIN: Yeah, Fox doesn't drink.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the Fox character in your newest novel, he is a fairly straight-ahead guy. I mean, he doesn't have as many peculiar angles as Rebus did. Is that going to work for you, do you think? Is it going to work for your readers?

Mr. RANKIN: I think it does. People seem to like him. They find him very amenable as a character. He's someone they can empathize and sympathize with.

What I wanted to do is to take a guy who is basically a professional voyeur. He's not an active participant a lot of the time. He's watching people. He's building up the case against them, and then the information gets passed on elsewhere - someone who's quite passive in life and passive in the job that they do, and then suddenly have to make him a protagonists, make him have to become proactive because he falls under suspicion and he has to find out why.

So there was that kind of flip. He's a kind of gentle man. He's a bear of a man, who actually has to turn into something more like a fox.

WERTHEIMER: Now, of course, I'm sure all your fans are interested in why you retired Rebus. I mean, were you just sick of one another?

Mr. RANKIN: Not at all. I mean, this is quite frustrating. It was reality intruding, brutally. I decided early on in the series that they would exist in real time, so that we could chart the changes in society, the changes in the City of Edinburgh, and the changes in the Rebus as a human being.

And then I got a text on day on my phone from a cop that I knew. And he said: How old is Rebus? And I worked it out. I thought, well, he was 40 in book one, and book one was published in 1987. I said he's about 55, 56. He said you know he's got to retire at 60. I said no, I didn't know that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RANKIN: He said 55 is the retirement age in the police if you're a uniformed officer, and if you're a detective, it's 60. So I calculated that I had about three books left, and he retired.

But I wasn't fed up with him, and I don't think he was fed up with me. And they have change the rules since then. So there's a possibility that Rebus can come back in the future.

WERTHEIMER: Wow. Got any feelings about that so far?

Mr. RANKIN: I mean, I would like to bring Rebus back at some point. I know what exactly what he's doing. He's working in the cold case review unit, which exists in Edinburgh. It's staffed by three retired police detectives and one serving police detective. And they just look at old, unsolved cases.

Well, there's all kinds of possibilities there. There's a possibility that the Complaints, the Internal Affairs, Malcolm Fox can end up investigating Rebus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RANKIN: Or that they could collide in some way. Or else, I could write another Rebus novel. So there's lots of possibilities. And it would it kind of depend on what stories jumped out at me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, one of the characters which obviously survives from one set of books to the next, is Edinburgh.

Mr. RANKIN: Mm-hmm.


Mr. RANKIN: Yeah, I mean, Edinburgh's the main character.

WERTHEIMER: In this book, the city and Scotland, too, are staring into the abyss. They've got bank failure, deep recession, jobs going away. Extraordinary.

Mr. RANKIN: Edinburgh's a very small city. I mean, it's half a million people, half a million inhabitants. And yet we have this extraordinary financial sector stretching back down the centuries. We had two major banks. They had become vast entities. And something like 15 or 20 percent of all the jobs in Edinburgh depend on the financial sector.

So when the Royal Bank of Scotland looked to be 12 hours away from filing for bankruptcy, that was a cataclysmic thing for the City of Edinburgh. And I wanted it to explore what that kind of economy does to a city when it seems to implode.

And I just thought I want to write about this. How do I do it? And, you know, it seemed to me that a crime novel was a good way of doing it, a good starting point.

WERTHEIMER: Well, you know, you do a very interesting job on how the terrible economy messes with big-time crime. It appears to be just as hard on the - you would say - the Hard Boys as on the rest of the population.

Mr. RANKIN: Sure. Well, you know, if you're a gangster, you've got to put your money somewhere. And you look at where the big money is being made and you put your money there. And then if everything collapses, you won't get your money back. And unlike an awful lot of depositors, you have the means to try and force people to give you that money back.

WERTHEIMER: I wonder what the next book is going to be about.

Mr. RANKIN: I've just finished the first draft. But the new book is mostly set outside Edinburgh. This was another nice thing about the Internal Affairs Department. Someone like Rebus, a homicide detective, doesn't tend to travel too far outside his own area. But Complaints Department, Internal Affairs, often get asked by neighboring police forces if they'll come and actually look into some aspect of that police force.

So I've taken Fox and his colleagues north from Edinburgh to Fife, which is only 20 or 30 miles north, but it's where I grew up. So having managed to annoy lots of people in Edinburgh about the way I write about the place and saying it's crime-ridden. I'm now going to annoy lots of people back in my hometown.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Ian Rankin, his new book, "The Complaints," looking at crime from a new vantage point, is already in stores.

Thank you very much for coming in.

Mr. RANKIN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.