Ian Rankin reflects on slowing down as a writer and struggling for ideas as new John Rebus thriller is launched

Crime writer Sir Ian Rankin has revealed his writing has slowed down significantly and admitted he was six months late starting his new Rebus book as he struggled for ideas.
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The creator of the best-selling Inspector Rebus series says he is lucky to get an idea for a new book every year or two, as spoke of his relief at no longer being on a “treadmill” of writing a new book at least once a year.

Rankin, who has won acclaim from critics for a new John Rebus thriller tackling historic police corruption, said he was going through the same “ageing process” as his character.

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Rankin, who said his wife had persuaded him to take the whole of next year off, said he needed to “step away” from writing to think about what he still want to do.

Rankin, who turned 62 earlier this year, was speaking at the launch of new Rebus novel A Heart Full of Headstones at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh.

Rankin previously signed a seven-figure deal with publisher Orion to produce two more Rebus thrillers.

However he admitted at the launch of the new book that he had not even started writing until February, even though an October release date for the next Rebus book had been announced by then.

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Rankin said: “In August last year, all I knew I had to deliver a book by June this year, but I had nothing. All the way from August through to the end of the year I still had nothing.

Crime writer Ian Rankin has just released his new John Rebus novel. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA WireCrime writer Ian Rankin has just released his new John Rebus novel. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Crime writer Ian Rankin has just released his new John Rebus novel. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

“I was getting a wee bit anxious and went on holiday with my wife to St Lucia. It suddenly started coming at me so I got my own phone out and tapped out little notes to myself.

“When I got back to Edinburgh I had the spine of something that could be a book. I started writing it the beginning of February.”

Rankin, who disclosed that his latest book has a “cliffhanger ending,” was asked about the future of the character, who made his debut in the novel Knots and Crosses in 1987.

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He said: “All I know is I am taking a year off next year or I am getting divorced.

Sir Ian Rankin has just published his 24th John Rebus novel.Sir Ian Rankin has just published his 24th John Rebus novel.
Sir Ian Rankin has just published his 24th John Rebus novel.

“My wife said that we’re going on a year-long holiday or she’s walking away, so there will be no writing next year, no festivals and no appearances, just fun, as she says while we still can, while we still have our own knees and still have our wits about us.

“We were supposed to take a year off a couple of years ago, but Covid got in the way. Instead of taking a year off, I wrote four times as much as I would normally write.

“I think my wife is right. You do need to step away for a while. I need some I need some clear blue water to think about what I want to do next and what might happen to Rebus next. This book does end on a cliffhanger, so I need to think about that quite hard.

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"Also, when I was young and full of vim and vigour, I would get an idea a week, or an idea a day. Now I'm lucky to get an idea every year or two, as you can tell from the fact that I was starting this book in August and nothing was happening through till January.

“Maybe I need some time just to think about what I still want to do with whatever time is left to me.

"All the stuff that Rebus is going through now is stuff that I'm going through as well, this ageing process, where you think: ‘What is still left for me to do, what do I still want to do and what do I need to do as a writer?

“It would be nice to have some time where I could just switch off and start thinking about that and not be on a treadmill. I used to write a book or two a year and would then tour and tour. I want to step away and just think about what I want to do next.

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“We've all seen long running series run on a steam. I would hate to think that the Rebus novels would start to run out of steam and that I was still writing them because I felt I needed to write them. Hopefully I'm not there yet. I’ve still got hopefully still have a few good books in front of me.”

The 24th book in the series - which opens with Rebus in the dock on trial himself - is partly inspired by increasing concern about bad practice in police forces. Rankin said: “The theme that I wanted to explore was basically ‘what kind of cops do we get?’

“There had been all this stuff in the media, bad things that had happened in London with the Metropolitan police, the Sarah Everard murder, the two sisters who were murdered in the park and cops were doing selfies and sending them to WhatsApp group, and in Scotland we had the Sheku Bayoh case, where a man in Kirkcaldy was killed while being arrested by police officers.

“I just thought: ‘Hang on a minute, what is going on? Are these the good guys?’ That was it.“

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A Heart Full of Headstones focuses on a “really dodgy” fictional police station in the Tynecastle area and the implications for Rebus when a serving officer threatens to lift the lid on previous corrupt practices after he faces domestic violence allegations.

Rankin added: “Rebus is trying to clear his name as a bad cop, but Rebus is a bad cop. These days, he wouldn’t get away with half of what he got away with in the past.

“In some ways, this is his nemesis coming calling, saying: ‘Look, the stuff you thought you got away with, you never quite get away with.’”

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