You retired Rebus from the police force in 2007 (in Exit Music), but he still wants to help solve crimes. How much of a challenge is that creatively?
I’ve got this guy in his mid-late 60s who doesn’t have a warrant card, can’t blithely walk into any police station and get past the front desk. So if he wants to be a detective, he’s got to find ways past that. I really enjoy that challenge – it keeps me on my toes.
Rebus’s unconventional, old-fashioned policing techniques solve crimes that modern, by-the-book policing can’t. Are you nostalgic for Rebus’s policing methods?
When I started writing the Rebus books I was a big fan of the American private eye story and I always envisaged Rebus as a kind of private eye within the police. He’s not going to work well as part of a team, he’s going to want to be out doing his own thing, sometimes bending the rules as far as he can. So now that’s how he operates. He’s doing this partly for his own satisfaction and partly because he just feels driven. He feels detective work has been his whole life. Also, he’s at a certain age now where he’s looking around at the world and wondering if he still makes a difference. Does he still have a role to play? And getting involved with the police, trying to solve mysteries – that’s his way of answering that question.
Rebus struggles with modern technology and social media, and a lot of the novel’s humour comes from that. How has social media changed the way you write about policing?
Rebus is bewildered at the speed of change around him. The media used to be fairly easy to control because there wasn’t much of it, but now everybody’s the media. If you have a social media presence – a blog, or a vlog, or are on Twitter – you’re reporting stuff all the time, and there are no filters. And the police are trying to use social media to get word out, but there’s no control over the dissemination of that.
You’ve acknowledged in the past that Rebus is to some extent your alter ego. Has he become more or less like you over the years?
Blessedly, I’ve never smoked. I’m 58. Like Rebus, as Leonard Cohen famously said, “I ache in the places where I used to play.” My knees are going, my hearing’s going, my eyesight’s going, and you do start thinking: “How much longer have I got? What have I got left that I want to say?” I’m not at the stage yet of reading really short books because I might not make it to the end of a long book, but it can’t be too far away.
Did you grow up in a bookish house?
Not at all. If my parents read at all, they read during their summer holiday. But we had a little local library in our village and that was the saving grace. I’d go to the library and take out the maximum number of books I could.
Did your parents first take you to the library?
Yeah, my mum. I always read a lot of comics. I still love comics because they’re affordable literacy. For a whole generation of kids, it got them into reading and it was a rung of the ladder that would eventually lead to books. I used to hang out in the library too, once I was old enough to go there on my own.
What kind of things were you reading?
At 12 I was reading The Godfather – I read the book because I wasn’t old enough to see the film. The same went for A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jaws and The Exorcist. I wanted to know this world that was taboo, that I wasn’t supposed to know about.
Which writers most influenced your writing?
Muriel Spark was a huge influence. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – one of my favourite books ever – led me down this rabbit hole because Miss Jean Brodie is descended from a real-life Edinburgh character, William Brodie, who was gentleman by day and thief by night. So he became one of the influences for Jekyll and Hyde. Another influence was a book called Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg, which is one of the first serial-killer novels.
Is there a book you really wish you’d written yourself?
A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell. That book was a fascinating primer for me in how to write a sequence of books with the same cast of characters, and having the main character age along the way. This notion that life is a dance to the music of time – if you’re writing a series it’s crucial to know how to do it.
What about a book that’s highly acclaimed but you think is overrated?
There’s a lot of great literature I’ve tried reading and couldn’t. War and Peaceand Middlemarch I didn’t really get on with. The literary novel sometimes disappoints me. When I was at university I was a big fan of Thomas Pynchon, and I’ve tried some of the writers who have come after him and not really enjoyed them. I’m at an age now where if I’m not enjoying a book I tend to put it aside rather than fight my way to the bitter end. There are a hell of a lot of books out there I still want to read before I go.
Which literary figures, dead or alive, would you most like to meet?
I’d love to meet Robert Louis Stevenson, and particularly to ask him one specific question: what was in the original manuscript of Jekyll and Hyde? Because famously his wife, Fanny, handed the manuscript back to him and told him it was no good, and he burned it. I mean, did he really do that? I just find it extraordinary that a writer would do that to their own work. But also, why? Was it too close to home?
Who would you like to write the story of your life?
I don’t want anybody writing my biography. I talk through my characters and I talk through my novels – that’s me. I would rather people knew me through the books. I kept a diary from the age of 12 until I was in my mid-30s, and I’ve been through them and thought, Jesus, Ian, it’s just so boring.
What was the last great book you read?
John Niven’s Kill ’Em All, which is a follow-up to Kill Your Friends. It really is Martin Amis’s Money for the Trump age. It’s ludicrous and laugh-out-loud funny and filthy.
What do you have on your bedside table to read next?
I’m halfway through the new Michael Connelly, Dark Sacred Night. After that I’ve got Robin Robertson, The Long Take, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize. I taught on the creative writing course at UEA and one of my students, Elizabeth Macneal, has a book coming out next year that I’m really excited about called The Doll Factory.