John Rebus is one of the most famous detectives in crime fiction. The creation of Scottish writer Ian Rankin, the hard-drinking, hard-smoking Inspector Rebus has been solving crimes in his own, not quite by the book, way for 25 years. He’s also earned Rankin a slew of international literary and academic honors, as well as an OBE from Queen Elizabeth in 2002.
Then five years ago, Rankin had the audacity to retire Rebus. But some cops don't like to stay retired.
Rankin's newest book, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, finds Rebus returned to center stage – if not quite in the same capacity as before and well outside of Edinburgh, his normal patch.
“A country that small can be this complex - you go from Edinburgh to Glasgow, which is 40 miles between those two cities; the language changes, the culture changes, the dialect, the words they use, the sense of humor, the philosophy of life, everything changes," he says.
Rankin says he needed to get Rebus out of his comfort zone and into a place where he is not fully in control of the investigative situation - as he gets lost traveling around Glasgow's systemically organized streets.
"All Glasgow streets look the same,” jokes Rankin, who was in Milwaukee last month for a book signing at both Mystery One Bookstore and Boswell Book Company.
So why did he retire his most famous literary creation in the first place?
“Rebus retired because a cop phoned me up one day,” he says. “He asked, ‘Ian, how old is Rebus?’ And I said '58 or 59. Why?’ He said, ‘He’s got to retire at 60.'"
It turns out that the average retirement age for cops in Scotland is 60, 55 if you are in uniform, 60 if you are a detective. Rankin says he mistakenly though 65 was the average retirement age for men.
But by taking the cop’s advice, Rankin was able to introduce the character Malcolm Fox. A few years later, Scotland raised its retirement age to 65, meaning a comeback for Rebus was possible.
It also meant that Rankin could draw on the opposing personalities of his protagonists in the new story. The two detectives have opposing methods of investigation: Fox is the scientific, orderly investigator while Rebus is that maverick that is cheered on by many.
So Fox became Rebus' foil and adversary, mostly because "I simply don’t like him so much,” Rankin says.
For as much as Rebus' life has changed in the new book, Rankin says he's staying true to the themes of the other installments in the series.
“Every book I have written is about a really basic question: why do we continue to do bad things to each other as human beings?” he says.
“It’s something that a very famous Edinburgh author, Robert Louis Stevenson, explored in his book Jekyll and Hyde: What makes human beings do bad things? Is it chemically induced? Is it society? Does it have to do with background? Are we born by it or are we made by it?”
Not even Rebus can solve that conundrum.