Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Brief Encounter

One of my favorite memories from this year’s Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards presentation (now sponsored by Specsavers, Cactus TV, and ITV3) was catching up with best-selling Scottish author Ian Rankin prior to the festivities. While I was waiting in the Grosvenor House’s Red Bar, Rankin arrived and spotted me seated behind one of my signature gin-and-tonics (my first of the night, actually, and at the Red Bar’s prices, there was little fear of my putting away many more). Rankin’s interruption was welcome. I hadn’t seen him for a while, and as every Rap Sheet reader knows, he has a new work of fiction out in Britain--The Complaints, his opening entry in a post-John Rebus series.

Like the majority of Rankin’s work, The Complaints is set in his hometown of Edinburgh. In relation to that book, P.D. James wrote recently in The Guardian:
Rankin is predominantly a crime novelist of realism. He eschews even the convenient convention that a detective does not age and may talk of retiring but seldom does. Each book is set unambiguously in place and time. In The Complaints we are given precise dates at which the narrative moves forward. The story is told chiefly in dialogue which is terse and realistic. We meet [Inspector] Malcolm Fox on Friday 6 February 2009, and part company on Tuesday 24 February. We travel with him through the sinister underground of the city and the haunts of the rich and powerful, knowing the pubs, the offices, the hotels he enters, what he eats when he is alone, where he does his shopping and the food he buys. And always human lives are seen against the thread of history.

Rankin is a master at what, for me, is one of the important aspects of a crime novel: the integration of setting, plot, characters and a theme which, for Rankin, is the moral dimension never far from his writing. Here it is unambiguously stated on the cover of The Complaints: who decides right from wrong? Fox is so fully realised and interesting a character, his job in “the complaints” so fraught with fascinating possibilities, that we can surely hope to meet him again. And somewhere in Edinburgh is John Rebus, retired, but for Ian Rankin readers very much alive.
I congratulated Rankin on his induction--destined to take place that night--into ITV3’s Crime Writers “Hall of Fame.” But being the modest sort, he immediately changed the subject and inquired whether I was in the running for some kind of award myself (after having been nominated repeatedly for an Anthony Award for Special Service, only to be denied the prize). Alas, I was not. So I turned the subject around once more and passed along regards from Jon and Ruth Jordan of Crimespree Magazine, who I’d only just left at Bouchercon in Indianapolis. There is a very strong bond between Rankin and the Jordans, because it was the Scotsman who introduced Ruth to Jon Jordan, at the 1999 Bouchercon in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (“Crikey, that was years ago,” Ian said when I recalled this fortuitous encounter.) And he was pleased to learn that the Jordans had just won their third Anthony Award for services to the genre.

It wasn’t long before we were sharing memories of all sorts. When I mentioned that I was attending this evening’s awards presentation as a guest of the organizers of Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, England, Rankin reminded me that he was one of the guests of honor at the very first Harrogate event back in 2003. (His fireside chat during that conference with novelist Peter Robinson still resides pleasantly in my memory.) And we agreed that it was largely because of the 2003 festival--and, in particular, Ann Cleeves’ championing of a special track of panel discussions about Scandinavian crime fiction--that works from Sweden, Iceland, and elsewhere have come to widespread notice in Britain.

2003 was a signal year in other respects. It was at the 2003 Bouchercon in Las Vegas, Nevada, that Jon Jordan whispered to me over breakfast one morning, “Hey, Ali, we’re thinking of starting a magazine ...” (Crimespree debuted in the summer of 2004.) It was during the same convention that I introduced Gayle Lynds to David Morrell, and the seeds of the International Thriller Writers organization were planted.

“Life was simpler then,” I mused, before acquainting Rankin with my present hectic schedule. He mentioned, in turn, that he’s about to embark on a lengthy tour of India, China, and Southeast Asia--travel destined to consume many of what might otherwise be valuable fiction-creating hours. “When do you get time to write?” I asked him. Rankin gave me an anxious smile, then remarked, “Ali, it’s getting harder and harder to get the momentum with all the travel, and of course I need the sights and smells of Edinburgh” [for inspiration]. He mentioned, though, that he’d just penned a piece for the Sunday Observer. Apparently, Rankin’s hometown won the No. 1 position--again--in a survey asking Observer readers to name their favorite UK city. Who better than Rankin to decipher the enduring appeal of the Scottish capital? In the article, Rankin tries to explain his city’s attractions by citing one of its lesser-known destinations, the Oxford Bar on Young Street:
This isn’t a random starting point. I discovered it as a young writer. I’d invented a character called Detective Inspector John Rebus, and he needed a place to hang out. The Oxford Bar is central (Young Street is a two-minute walk from Princes Street), yet hidden. It is small, but contains the widest possible cross-section of Edinburgh life.

As I walk in, there are a few nods of greeting (nothing too effusive). Kirsty behind the bar has guessed that I’ll want a pint of Deuchars India Pale Ale. Edinburgh at one time had more than 40 breweries--the Scottish Parliament sits on the remains of one of them. These days, though, there is just the one. It’s called the Caledonian Brewery, and that’s where my IPA was made--about two miles from here as the crow flies.

The “Ox” is run by Harry Cullen. Harry used to sing in a folk group (though he won’t thank me for publicising the fact), and has a fund of stories of his own. In fact, everyone I have ever met in the Oxford Bar has a story to tell. I ask Harry today if any Rebus fans have been in. He rolls his eyes.

“Two of them took photos--without buying a drink!” He then asks me if I’m having another. I shake my head.

“Things to do,” I say by way of apology.

“That’s my profits shot,” he mutters, polishing a glass.

With a shrug and a wave, I head out, crossing nearby Charlotte Square (home to the First Minister) and emerging on a rain-soaked Queensferry Street. The shops soon disappear as I approach Randolph Cliff. I cross the road and head down Bells Brae, turning right at a signpost announcing that Leith is two-and-three-quarter miles away. This path, deserted apart from the odd dog-walker and jogger, runs along the
Water of Leith.

Robert Louis Stevenson once called Edinburgh a “precipitous city”, and he was absolutely right. Whether you’re peering down on to Princes Street Gardens from the castle, or craning your neck to look up from the Cowgate at George IV Bridge above, you sense that Edinburgh contains an intensity of heights and depths.
(For a longer version of that feature story, get your hands on the November issue of Lonely Planet Magazine.)

Our drinks done, our stories swapped, it was time to move on to our respective commitments. He had a Hall of Fame award to receive, and I had a table to find, from which I could watch that prize handed his way. We said our good-byes, and then he was gone--our meeting another memory to catalogue, without complaints.

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