National Library lifts lid on vast archive donated by Ian Rankin

It is a treasure trove dedicated to the life and work of one of Scotland’s most successful modern-day writers.

Sunday, 10th May 2020, 7:30 am
Updated Monday, 11th May 2020, 3:09 pm
Ian Rankin donated his personal archive to the National Library last year.

Now the National Library of Scotland has lifted the lid on a vast Ian Rankin archive spanning five decades.

The vast haul, which has filled 77 boxes in the National Library’s collection centre, includes an unpublished first novel by Rankin, written before he created his inspector character, as well as the original manuscripts for the detective series.

The archive curator, who was appointed to the “dream job” last year after Rankin decided to donate his personal archives to the National Library after “downsizing” to a new home in Edinburgh, has unearthed song lyrics, poems and music reviews of acts like Madonna and R.E.M., along with his reflections on how he originally saw the Rebus book as an “apprenticeship” to become an author and his determination to ensure crime fiction was treated more seriously.

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The archive, highlights of which will be showcased in a major exhibition next year, also recalls how Rankin considered turning Rebus into a private detective when he reached retirement. But a crucial part of the Rebus story is missing – a handwritten manuscript from the first novel in which Rankin killed him off.

Rosemary Hall, who read her first Rebus novel, Black And Blue, when she was at high school in Maryland, in the United States, was appointed project curator for the archive in September.

Hall, who studied Scottish culture and literature at Edinburgh and St Andrews universities, said: “I was a big fan of Ian’s writing, although I hadn’t read all of the Rebus books, and I’d studied his work at university. But I was also really interested in the nature of the job in going through an entire archive from start to finish and eventually making something so important available to everybody.

“He clearly had a filing system. A lot of the material was still in the original folders which he had labelled and all the manuscripts for each novel were together in the same box with all his notes on each book.

“The stuff that was a bit more haphazard were things like press cuttings – he’d kept almost every review and interview – which were just piled up in several boxes.

“One of the most interesting things was how much research he did for each book. Sometimes he would spend a good year before he started writing, including researching local dialects for characters and making contact with police officers to get their procedures right. He really cared about everything being accurate. He has been writing for so long and is so successful, but is obviously still so meticulous.

“I also came across his hand-written lyrics for his band Dancing Pigs, which are a lot of fun, and a track listing for an album that was never released – my favourite song title was Anarchy in Cowdenbeath.

“There were different pockets of poetry, including a book he had put together himself when he was in his twenties, which he designed the cover for and has written on the back: ‘Lovingly published by me’.

“One of my favourite items is a big orange notebook from around 1990-91. On the front of it he has written: ‘This book belongs to Ian Rankin the writer. It’s his big book of ideas so no peeking.’

“What a lot of people will find interesting are his thoughts on crime fiction as a genre. He was not exactly happy. He had some very strong opinions at the time. He did not feel that crime fiction was really respected enough and wanted to change that.

“He didn't set out to become a crime writer. He always wanted to be taken seriously as a literary writer. He has worked really hard to make crime fiction respected as a genre.”

Rankin said: “I actually didn’t read crime fiction when I was younger. I thought the first Rebus book was part of a Scottish literary tradition that stretched back to Robert Louis Stevenson and beyond.

“But when the book was published I found it in the crime section and became aware that crime novels were not an accepted part of the literary sphere. That's changed over the years.“This was a time when you couldn't study crime fiction at university and weren't able to choose a crime novel to write about for your Higher English.

Rankin’s first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, which was published in 1987 and was his second published novel, could have been the last had the author not had a change of heart over decision to kill off the detective at the end of the serial killer thriller. However the original ending to the book is missing from the archive.

Rankin said: “The original ending has just been lost in the mists of time. I think I changed the ending very early on, possibly before I got round to typing up the book. I used to write in longhand. I thought I wasn't going to use the character again and that he might as well die - it would have been a surprise for everybody if the hero died.

“But then I thought that nobody likes it if the hero dies. It never got as far as going to an editor. I decided to change it before I typed up the book, edited it and sent it off into the wilderness.”

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