The Social Context

Real Time Writing

‘What I usually get first is a theme – which comes from something I’m interested in or some question that’s been bugging me’ Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin has written the Rebus novels in real time – that is, it is set in contemporary Edinburgh and Rebus ages as we do – although time has slowed down slightly for the most recent books where Rebus is back on the force, as we had some time out for the development of the Malcolm Fox character in The Complaints and The Impossible Dead. This has enabled Ian to draw upon the political and social issues of the day; the stories stand as interesting snapshots of Edinburgh taken from the late 1980s to the present day.

At the most basic level, the changes in policing have had a direct effect on the stories. Back in 1987 there were no mobile phones, Internet or DNA testing. A fax machine was about the most hi-tech piece of kit. Fast-forward to the present and the advances in technology have changed the policing landscape forever – and this is a source of conflict between Siobhan and Rebus, the latter preferring the old-school methods of graft and cross-referencing rather than relying on CCTV or Internet sourcing.

In his books, Ian shines a light onto the issues of the day by choosing controversial social and political issues to form the backdrops to his detective stories, with the investigation offering an opportunity to explore that theme. This provides an interesting commentary on contemporary Scotland. Issues have included: social exclusion, racism, immigration, politics, cyber-crime, sectarianism, child abuse, devolution, nationalism, global politics, terrorism, corruption and internal police investigations, to name but a few. In addition, the introduction of Inspector Malcolm Fox from the ‘Complaints’ division allowed him to turn the spotlight back onto the police themselves. Ian has often said that he picks up themes as he reads the newspaper and considers, ‘What it says about us as humans, as Scottish society’. He will then work these ideas and contradictions into his novels, sometimes blurring the line of fiction and reality.

This way of writing has also meant that Ian could take account of the changing face of Scottish politics, the death of old industries, the birth of new technologies and the fall-out from devolution. These themes and ideas provide the underlay for many of the Rebus novels. The new Scottish Parliament drove the plot for Set in Darkness and proved the ideal scenario for the cynical Inspector Rebus to voice his mistrust of Edinburgh’s political set-up. It was also the perfect opportunity for Ian to write about a pivotal moment in Scotland’s history, which he did again in Saints of the Shadow Bible – written in the lead-up to the Scottish Referendum of 2014. And of course, in The Naming of the Dead, use of the 2005 G8 summit as a plot hook gave Ian the chance to orchestrate a meeting between Inspector Rebus and President George W. Bush… to hilarious consequence.