12:01am

Thu March 24, 2011
Books

Ian Rankin Switches To A New Hero In 'Complaints'

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 dfferenence 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 gentle man," 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 who 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 make an impact even 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." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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