On a pleasant Edinburgh day in mid-March, our Ricky Monahan Brown attended the launch for the first RebusFest, which is to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the first appearance of Ian Rankin’s iconic detective.
The sunlight pouring into the mezzanine level of Waterstone’s Princes Street didn’t feel quite right for a chat about John Rebus. Wouldn’t the Detective Inspector be happier tucked away in The Oxford Bar, a couple of blocks away? Fortunately, the basement of the bookshop offered a suitable compromise, and they were able to talk about the forthcoming festival.
TF: So, how did the whole idea of RebusFest come about?
My publishers were aware that the thirtieth anniversary was coming up, and they said ‘We should do something special for this.’ And what can we do? For Rebus’s twentieth anniversary, we had a Rebus beer, and we did a couple of little Rebus competitions. And we thought that thirty is a much bigger deal – why don’t we do a festival?
And they know Rebus likes his music. And I like my music. Originally, it was, ‘Why don’t we do a night of music at the Queens Hall?’ Bands that I like, bands that he would like. Then, if people are coming for the weekend, we thought we’d give them more stuff. We’ve got talks, a pub quiz – we talked to Highland Park about doing a special whisky, and they’re doing that. We talked to the Filmhouse about showing Reichenbach Falls (a crime drama written by James Mavor, based on an original idea by Rankin) and they were happy to do that, so…. It was meant to be.
Though how Rebus would feel about it, I have no idea.
TF: It’s an intriguing thought, definitely! How did you go about programming the festival?
I wanted it to be a personal thing, to be something I was passionate about. So for the music, we went to Michael Weston King – who’s got an Americana band, My Darling Clementine – but he also worked with Jackie Leven, who was a friend of mine, and a musician. They used to play together and tour together. Jackie died a few years ago, and two of the Rebus books are named after lines in his songs. So that was important, because Michael’s going to do some of Jackie’s songs as well as some of his own work, and I’ll get up on stage and talk a bit about Jackie Leven.
So there’s that, and then I thought, ‘OK. Who might Rebus listen to now?’ And I thought, Blue Rose Code – an amazing Scottish singer-songwriter and band. And they remind me a little of John Martyn. Not a lot, but a wee bit. And the nice thing about Blue Rose Code is, Rebus would like this music, I like this music. And the thing is, Blue Rose Code’s first album is called The Ballads of Peckham Rye, which is named after a novel by Muriel Spark, who I wrote my Ph.D. on when I was writing the first Rebus. And Kirsty Law’s going to come along and do some stuff as well. It was very much, what would I like to go and see?
TF: Since you are a big music fan, how do you come across new music these days?
People will tell me about things, record shops will say, ‘We’ve got this new artist in, we think you’ll really like it.’ That how I heard about Blue Rose Code, because Coda Records said, ‘You’ll really love this guy.’ And sometimes I’ll see a review in the music press that seems interesting, and I’ll check it out online and if I like it, I’ll pick up the vinyl whenever I can.
The problem is, Rebus probably hasn’t bought many new records since about 1975. So I’ve always go to make sure it’s his musical taste in the books, not mine. He’ll still listen to a lot of John Martyn, Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher. A lot of people who aren’t with us any more. Van, god bless him, still is, of course…
TF: And Rebus, now, has been around for longer than the Rolling Stones had been around at the time of Knots and Crosses.
That’s a scary thought! He’s the Mick Jagger – no, the Keith Richards! – of crime fiction!
TF: – so, of course, he’s evolved and changed. How do you think his relationship with his readers has changed over that period?
He’s lived more or less in real time, so he’s aged. And of course, his readers have grown older with him, so they’re saying, ‘I’ve got the same problems – I’ve got bad knees, and my hearing’s going and my eyesight’s going. And I’m looking around the world and everything’s strange and everything’s different, and I can’t make sense of it any more.’
They’re confused, and Rebus is confused. He doesn’t understand Twitter, for example. He doesn’t know why anyone would be interested in Twitter. He can’t use new technology, like the satnav in his car. So there are all sorts of things where people will say, ‘I can relate to that, because I’m older now.’
At the same time, he’s looking around himself now, at the world, and he’s feeling his age and mortality tapping him on the shoulder. And he’s asking, ‘Can I still play a role in this changed world?’
He’s no longer a cop, he’s retired. He misses it. He wants to still make a difference if he can. So he tries to connect himself to police investigations wherever possible. I think a lot of people can relate to that.
TF: And RebusFest is taking place in Rebus’s Edinburgh, and a lot has changed in the city as well. How different does RebusFest in 2017 look to a Rebusfest – you know, let’s imagine you created him sixty years ago – if we’re doing it in 1987?
Well, in 1987, Edinburgh was very different. We didn’t have the Parliament. Glasgow was the big, buzzy place where a lot of stuff was happening. Edinburgh might have seemed a little moribund, compared to Glasgow at that time. We didn’t have all the great restaurants. When I arrived here in ’78, there were about three good restaurants in Edinburgh. Now, you trip over them wherever you go. Then, I was very much baked potato shops and fish and chip shops.
Politically, there have been a lot of changes. Socially, there have been a lot of changes. We’ve been through this thing where The Royal Bank of Scotland was a small bank, then it was a huge bank with this brand new headquarters, then it went bust and it had to be bailed out; we’ve been through all of that. So Edinburgh’s been through a lot of culture shocks. And I think the books have reflected that – hopefully – to a certain degree.
TF: You’ve alluded to this, and I’ve read you say, you hope Rebus would enjoy this festival –
I don’t know, he’d probably ignore it! He’d be too busy sitting in The Oxford Bar having a drink!
TF: What do you think he’d particularly enjoy in what you’ve programmed for the festival?
Hopefully he’d enjoy the live music – although he’d only go to live music now if he could sit down. I’m starting to feel the same way now! But it would be the music, I would think. And the whisky tasting – those are his areas of expertise. He’d enjoy drinking the Highland Park.
You can enjoy the music and the whisky and the rest of RebusFest: Celebrating 30 years of the iconic detective from 30 June to 2 July, 2017. For full programme information, visit the site – tickets are on sale now.
All photos courtesy of Robin Frowley.