Marcin Miller talks to author Ian Rankin, 'the hottest name in British crime fiction', a whisky enthusiast with a gift for finding good bars
Two years ago Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue won The Macallan Gold Dagger, the annual international crime writing award. “That is when things really took off, sales quadrupled. Everything clicked.” He is now the hottest name in British crime fiction. Ian Rankin is bright, welcoming and affable. Three qualities that are notably absent from the murky and schizophrenic Edinburgh about which he writes. “The dark side of Rebus is reflected in everything; it’s reflected in Edinburgh, it’s reflected in the job that he does, it’s reflected in the literature that I come from ... It comes from that, it comes from the tradition of the crime novel and it comes a bit from me. You know, there’s a dark core inside me as well which is maybe exorcised by the writing of these books.” Ian Rankin never wanted to be a crime writer. A writer, yes. But a proper ‘literary one’: that had been his ambition since university. “I thought I was going to become a university lecturer writing these very elegant, intricate novels of the human condition on the side.” He became a crime writer by accident. His interest in Scottish fiction led to a desire to reclaim the Jekyll & Hyde story and return it to Edinburgh, rescuing it from its ostensible London setting: “But instead of making the good guy a doctor, I decided to make him a cop.” As Noughts and Crosses featured a policeman it was accepted as a crime novel. “I was shocked to go into the booksellers and see it in the crime section because I’d never read any crime fiction; I thought it was Scottish fiction.” It was supposed to be a one-off – currently there are 19 published Rebus novels. Rankin is particularly engaging on the subject of whisky, for which both he and Rebus have a soft spot. He recalls enthusiastically his first dram that came courtesy of his father at New Year in Carpenden (a small mining town in Fife where he was born and brought up). “I remember my dad taking me for what he thought was my first pint. Unbeknownst to him I was going out drinking lunchtimes at school. Slipping off the blazer and going in for a few pints. I’d have been 15 or 16 when he took me to a small pub. But he didn’t drink much whisky. It was a New Year thing. You had your New Year bottle, which was what you took around when you were first footing, when you were going from house to house after the bells at midnight. So you had your bottle of whisky and you would go around and you would swap glasses with other people. At two or three in the morning you’d be in a complete stranger’s house, you’d just wandered in there, and you’d end up getting a plate of stovies put in front of you.”Although blends were preferred for New Year, his father enjoyed Bowmore above other malts. This traditional introduction to whisky matured into an appreciation of single malts at the hands of his university lecturers, including an impromptu field trip initiated by a friend from California. He wanted to tour some distilleries.Rankin borrowed his aunt’s Renault 5 and off they went: to the islands, up the west coast and then down through Speyside. “We were sleeping some nights in the car. The one I remember is Glen Grant. We stopped for the night at the gates because they were padlocked shut. We slept in the car and rattled the gates open in the morning. We woke and drove straight through into the distillery.” By this stage of the trip they were keen to avoid the tours, having decided that they knew enough about the production process. They would go straight through the tasting room and get a dram under their belts then head off to the next distillery. “We got as far as Uig on Skye, which was pretty hairy. We went into a bar in Uig and it was one of these places where the barman stops cleaning glasses as you walk in and everybody stops talking and the piano player stops playing. And we walked up. I knew the local whisky was Talisker and I fixed him with a steely glint and said ‘a couple of Taliskers’. He said 70, 80 or 100 proof. I said 100 and the piano player started playing again.” A bottle of Talisker in his cupboard acts as a souvenir of that defining moment. He also recalls with fondness a night in Inverness when Aberdeen won the European Cup Winner’s Cup Final and they enjoyed a lock-in at a bar, drinking Glen Grant all night long. Rankin is a natural storyteller and is clearly in his element on Friday nights down the pub with his mates. Since that memborable two-week tour he has started collecting whisky. One of the current highlights is a highly favoured 25-year-old Linkwood. “That one has gone down really fast. There’s a wonderful whisky shop in Soho called Milroy’s and that’s where that came from.” He is just waiting for the right occasion to open a 30-year-old 1966 Signatory Glenugie. Also in the cupboard are two Cadenhead whiskies; a 1979 Imperial-Glenlivet and a Convalmore-Glenlivet. A prominent position is given to a bottle of The Macallan that came with a free copy of his book Strip Jack. “That was a couple of years ago after I won the Gold Dagger. I’m not touching that.”
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