He is the best-selling mystery author in the UK, having moved more books there in 2002 than John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell and even Agatha Christie. But while his gritty adventures starring the rebellious, middle-aged Scottish detective John Rebus have a cult following in the United States, Ian Rankin is still not a widely known name here. That might change with Resurrection Men -- Rankin's most recent offering, and also one of his best.
Like all of the Rebus novels, Resurrection Men has more in common with the traditional American crime novel than the British "cozy" mystery. "There used to be this schism between American and British crime fiction where [the British] had the amateur detective who sort of stumbled into a case," Rankin says from his home in Scotland. This genteel genre is often set in the country, and one of its main characters usually turns out to be the bad guy. "But today," he says, "it's much more influenced by Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy" -- that is, American authors whose books star hard-boiled detectives solving crimes in the mean city streets.
With its grimy corpses, shady neighborhood characters and seedy locales, Rebus's Scotland is far removed from the upper-class drawing room. "Rebus works out of an actual police station, lives on an actual street and drinks in actual pubs," says Rankin. (Indeed, the detective drinks quite a bit.) The author throws Scottish history, sociology and geography into the mix as well.
Resurrection Men follows two murder inquiries simultaneously -- one headed by Rebus and a team of disgraced detectives, the other by his erstwhile partner. As always, Rankin's characters evolve both personally and professionally over the course of the book. "The time to stop writing is when I've nothing new to learn about Rebus," Rankin says. "He's changed by the work he does."
Though Rankin is signing books in Houston for the first time, he's been to the area before. Last year, he traveled to Huntsville to film a crime documentary about an unusual three-way pen pal relationship between a prisoner on death row, the daughter of his victim and a British woman whose daughter was murdered.
"Huntsville was fascinating," says Rankin. "The prison industry really keeps the economy of that whole city going." Not that he thought the letter-writing prisoner didn't deserve to be there. "When I talked to the inmate, he seemed like a reasonable guy," Rankin says. "But later when I sat down with his rap sheet and looked at the cold-bloodedness of what he'd done, it changed my mind entirely."
The TV John Rebus will soon be coming our way via BBC America, which plans to show four movies based on Rankin's series. Meanwhile, the author will "continue to chip away" at the American market and insert his own life experiences into his fiction.
"I was in a punk band for six months called the Dancing Pigs, and we split up due to musical differences," he says. "None of us knew how to play our instruments." Ah, but rewriting history is easy with fiction. When Rankin wrote about the band in one of his books, he made it as popular as U2.
It's only one of many real-life musical references that dot his work. "Whenever I buy a new CD, it's a tax deduction," says Rankin. "For research purposes entirely, you understand."