Is Ian Rankin psychic? When he began writing his latest Inspector Rebus novel, he alighted on the title – A Song for the Dark Times – before the pandemic had struck.
“Brexit was ongoing, President Trump was in the White House, and we were seeing the rise of the far-Right across Europe and further afield,” he says. “There was a general feeling of unrest, and I thought these are dark times we’re going through.” He laughs drily. “Who knew what was just around the corner?”
While he admits lockdown has been tough on everybody, it has perhaps been even more so on Rankin and his family. His 26-year-old son Kit is severely disabled and resides in a care facility close to the family home in Edinburgh, which has been in lockdown since March. “It means we haven’t been able to give him a hug since February,” says Rankin. “The positive thing is that it’s keeping him and everyone else there safe. But, yeah,” he says, “it’s grim.”
Initially, they weren’t allowed to see Kit at all, until the staff at his care home hit upon a plan. “On a nice sunny day, they would bring him into the garden from the compound where he lives and we could see him over the wall, or through the big metal gate. We did that again for his 26th birthday in July, and we handed his presents to the staff so the packages could go into isolation for a couple of days before he was allowed to open them.”
Kit suffers from Angelman syndrome, a rare genetic condition affecting the nervous system, meaning he is blind and unable to walk or talk. “And because he can’t see,” says Rankin, “video calls, which would work for some people with special needs, don’t work for him.
“He would just wonder why he could hear us but couldn’t get the hug from us. It would almost be more difficult in a way, which was why getting to see him through the gate was such a godsend.
“It has to be this way because these are people with underlying health issues, who can’t afford to get Covid. But he’s quite relaxed and very well cared for, and his carers are fantastic.”
It is, however, hard on Rankin, his wife, Miranda, and their 28-year-old son, Jack. “Mother’s Day was tough for my wife. Not getting to sit with him on the sofa and give him a cuddle and let him pull my hair – that’s what he likes to do. And I can’t wait to be able to take him for a walk in his wheelchair and go to a café. But,” he adds, “that time will come again.”
Being able to write, Rankin freely admits, has always provided him with some kind of catharsis – “and I really think it’s saved me a lot of money on therapy.” In particular, John Rebus, his hard-drinking, melancholic detective, who has stalked the streets of Edinburgh solving crime for the past 33 years, has become a repository for some of Rankin’s more complex feelings. “I give my problems to him and he deals with them on my behalf.”
The latest novel sees Rebus travelling to the very north of Scotland, far from Edinburgh and his beloved Oxford Bar, the real-life pub frequented by Rankin himself. It was where Rankin would have celebrated his 60th birthday in April had lockdown not intervened. Instead, he marked it in slightly more desultory fashion, pouring himself a can of beer and drinking it swiftly outside the Oxford Bar before he could get moved on by the police. “I really miss the comfort of meeting friends in the pub, talking, sharing stories,” he says.
On cancel culture
In fact, it’s been a turbulent year all round. In June, his friend JK Rowling fell victim to cancel culture when critics accused her of being transphobic, after she took issue with the vogue for calling women “people who menstruate”. A tribute to the Harry Potter author – a pavement imprint of her hands which lies next to a similar tribute to Rankin in Edinburgh – was vandalised with red paint shortly afterwards.
“I haven’t spoken to her since then, as nobody has been able to get together,” he says, “but she’s a woman of incredibly strong will, she’s very confident and she fights back. She’s not going to take anything lying down. She’s got her arguments and she hasn’t seen any reason to change her mind, and I’m sure she’ll debate with people as long as it doesn’t end up in a screaming match.
“When it comes to social media though,” he says, “there’s no room for nuance, no middle ground, so there is no debate.”
Does he feel that cancel culture has gone too far? “Well, as a writer, I don’t want anything off limits, as long as we’ve got a space for debate. Censoring voices before you’ve heard what they’ve got to say can lead to some very dark places.”
Dark places of a different kind have led to a career as a crime writer that Rankin himself could never have foreseen. “I was supposed to be an accountant,” he laughs, “because an uncle of mine was an accountant and owned his own house and car, so it was seen as a good move. Then I had to break the news to my parents that I wanted to study English literature at university instead, and their faces fell as if to say: ‘What kind of job are you going to get with that?’”
A slow burning success
Sadly, his mother died when he was just 19 and his father, 10 years later, “so they never got to see me be a success at anything” – a success, he admits, which was a while coming. “My wife and I had got married and were living in a flat in Tottenham and she was basically supporting me. She said: ‘If you want to be a writer, we have to move out of London because it’s too expensive.’”
They lived in rural France for six years but, after Kit was born, “we moved back to Edinburgh because the French bureaucracy and medical language were defeating us”.
He had achieved moderate success with his Rebus novels until one day during a US book tour, “I was in a seedy motel when my wife phoned and said: ‘Your royalty statement’s come, and it’s over £100,000.’ I thought they’d added a zero by mistake, but suddenly my books were selling in the tens of thousands. It meant we could now afford all the equipment our son needed.”
With his latest novel completed, Rankin is now out of contract. “I’ve got no plans to write a next book,” he says. Surely, he won’t be retiring? “Well, my wife says I should put my feet up and now that I’ve turned 60, she thought we could do some travelling. Of course, Covid’s scuppered all those plans.
“But I think I’ll have to write another book,” he says. “It’s an emotional and psychological need. It’s how I try to make sense of the world.”
A Song for the Dark Times by Ian Rankin (Orion, £20) is out on Thursday. Order now for £16.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514