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Mysteries success is no puzzle

Ian Rankin's Rebus novels are popular in Britain and beyond

When Ian Rankin introduced Inspector Rebus in 1986, Edinburgh, Scotland, had the worst heroin and AIDS problems in Europe, he says.

'Nobody was writing about it, and a contemporary detective novel seemed like a good way of talking about the issues,' Rankin says by phone from Washington, D.C., as he wraps up a monthlong tour for his 13th Rebus novel, 'Resurrection Men.'

The success of Rebus' debut, 'Knots and Crosses,' started public interest swiveling in Edinburgh's direction, and the spotlight turned full-on with Irvine Welsh's stark 'Trainspotting' in 1993, made into a hit movie three years later.

Meanwhile 'the king of tartan noir,' as thriller writer James Ellroy has called Rankin, was hitting his stride, winning two Golden Dagger awards and a Raymond Chandler Fulbright Fellowship (named after Philip Marlowe's creator). He even got an OBE, or Order of the British Empire, last year.

Today, Rankin outsells Stephen King in Britain. Recently, eight of 10 best sellers in Scotland were written by Rankin.

Rankin, 42, didn't set out to write a police thriller. Influenced by Robert Louis Stevenson, he wanted to update the Jekyll and Hyde story, which was based on the actual case of Deacon Brodie, a gentleman by day and armed burglar by night.

In 'Knots and Crosses,' Rankin says, 'I was making Jekyll a cop instead of a doctor, but nobody got it. I'd go into bookstores and move it from mystery to literature, and they'd just move it back.'

Rankin knew almost nothing about police procedure, so, armed with a letter of introduction from the chief constable, he wandered into an Edinburgh police station to ask for details for his fictitious murder story. Trouble was, his tale was very close to an unsolved murder the cops were working on, and his first job was to persuade them that he hadn't committed the crime.

A rebus is a picture puzzle, and in the course of the story Rankin's detective had to solve a series of puzzles. Rankin admits he was thinking along the lines of Morse code and Morse, Colin Dexter's Oxford detective. In Dexter's novels the cop has solved more murders in 15 years than the dreaming college town has, in reality, seen in 50. Morse became a big hit on British and American television, thanks to actor John Thaw, who died last year.

As for a Rebus series on television, four episodes have shown in England starring John Hannah ('Four Weddings and a Funeral'), and they're due here next fall.

'It's a great series, filmed entirely on location, even the Edinburgh morgue,' Rankin says. 'What people like about the series is real people drink in real pubs, work real streets and use real police stations. Once you establish real time and place, people believe everything else.'

And Rebus exists in real time. In his latest book, he's 55, which means he has only five years to go before compulsory retirement. 'Resurrection Men' has Rebus being re-educated with a half-dozen other troublesome cops after he flies off the handle at his female boss during an investigation.

Rebus is gritty and unsociable, unable to maintain relationships at work or outside. His only steady companion is Detective Sgt. Siobhan Clarke, but her recent promotion means she can't help him, or he her. She's an intriguing character, though, and Rankin, who is faced with Rebus' unavoidable retirement, hopes he can follow her career in the future.

Rankin's and Rebus' success has given Edinburgh a boost, too, he says.

'There are Rebus walking tours, where a guide takes people around to the murder scenes and they have drinks in every pub mentioned in the book. I'm doing a lot for the local economy,' he says.

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