Whisky & Culture

The king of tartan noir

Ian Rankin's celebrated detective John Rebus is a hard talking whisky man. Jefferson Chase introduces him to a new audience
By Jefferson Chase
British readers won’t need much of an introduction to Ian Rankin and his alter ego detective chief inspector John Rebus. The Rebus series is not only a fixture in the bestseller lists; several instalments have also been filmed for television dramas.But the Rankin bandwagon is only just starting to get rolling outside the United Kingdom, and I’d like to jump on it and beat the drum for this talented Scotsman, described by American crime writer and violence addict James Ellroy as the king of ‘tartan noir’Tartan noir? Well yes. Rebus is Edinburgh through and though, and that includes, of course, a taste for single malts, preferably in that city’s Oxford Bar.In The Falls, one of Rankin’s more recent works, Rebus spends a good portion of the novel in various states of inebriation and even turns up drunk at one of the main suspects’ apartment.Rebus had accepted a black coffee from David Costello, popped two paracetemol from their foil shroud and washed them down. Middle of the
night, but Costello hadn’t been asleep. He’d made for an off-licence at some point: the bag was lying on the floor, the half-bottle of Bell’s sitting not far from it, top missing but only a couple of decent measures down. It was a non-drinker’s idea of how you handled a crisis – you drank whisky, but you had to buy some first, and no point lashing out on a whole bottle.As you can see, The Falls is tightly plotted– in both senses of the word.The story revolves around the murder of a young heiress and university student, which may or may not be linked to both a creepy, puzzle-solving game played via the internet and a creepier series of murders dating back decades or, possibly, centuries. But as with all great detective writers, you don’t read Rankin primarily for the plot, but for the atmosphere and the characters. And Rebus is every bit as intriguing as the crimes with which he’s faced.He’d been here before: other times, other cases, not all of them solved to anyone’s satisfaction. You tried not to care, tried to maintain objectivity, just as the training courses told you to, but it was hard. The Farmer still remembered a young boy from his first week on the force, and Rebus had his memories, too. Which was why, at day’s end, he went home, showered and changed, and sat in his chair for an hour with a glass of Laphroaig and the Rolling Stones for company: Beggars Banquet tonight, and more than one glass of Laphroaig actually.As in other Rebus novels, suspense arises from the constant question: can the detective keep himself together long enough to get his man?By the middle of The Falls, Rebus has been suspended from duty, and his superior wants him to go and see a doctor about his drinking. The only way out is to solve the case.The pros and cons of drinking. Crime fiction is about entertaining, not enlightening, but in the tradition of Raymond Chandler, Rankin is a keen observer of human weakness.In The Falls, Rebus becomes romantically linked to a museum curator, the widow of an alcoholic, who analyzes his fondness for single malts.She didn’t think Rebus was a secret drinker…. He just liked to drink. If he did it alone, that was because he didn’t have many friends. She’d asked Bill once why he drank, and he hadn’t been able to answer her. She thought probably John Rebus had answers, though he would be reluctant to give them. They’d be to do with washing away the world, scouring his mind of the problems and questions he kept stored there.None of which would make him a more attractive drunk than Bill had been…Passages like these make you realise that, just as Rebus is a more effective detective than he sometimes appears, there’s a lot more to Rankin as a writer than just the brain behind some clever whodunits. Indeed, at the risk of going out on a limb while jumping on a bandwagon, I’d rate Rankin as one of the best Scottish writers going.He won’t win the Booker Prize because he works in the wrong genre, but whereas highly touted authors like James Kelman focus exclusively on proletarian misery and brutality, Rankin offers a better balanced picture of Scotland as a flawed but basically likeable society.A place with strengths as well as weakness, light as well as dark. A patch of tartan noir.