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Imagine: Ian Rankin and the Case of the Disappearing Detective, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Imagine: Ian Rankin and the Case of the Disappearing Detective, BBC One

Imagine: Ian Rankin and the Case of the Disappearing Detective, BBC One

Bestselling crime novelist on his decision to bring back the character who made him famous

Among its insights, 'Imagine' takes us behind the scenes of this very publicity shot

Over the past couple of years, since my husband’s first book was accepted for publication, I have had the dubious privilege of becoming intimately acquainted with the behind the scenes day-to-day workings of the crime novelist. For that reason Miranda Harvey, the long-suffering wife of Ian Rankin, is now something of a hero of mine.

As she tells Imagine’s Alan Yentob, she is now so used to her husband’s writing patterns she can predict the “pause” that will hit, around page 65, when the UK’s most successful crime writer has run out of notes and has no idea what to do next.

As a documentary, The Case of the Disappearing Detective has plenty of promise. At its heart is footage filmed by Rankin himself, documenting the creation of his latest novel. Beginning on 2nd January 2012, the same day the author began The Impossible Dead the year before, Rankin promises to bring us every stage of the writing process. Cut to six days later, and the promise that he will “start tomorrow”. This is already starting to sound familiar.

Rankin has always prided himself on the realism of his work and cringes at the idea of contrivance

The Edinburgh-based author of the Rebus novels generally writes one book a year, a practice which he says means having “one good idea a year” is all he needs. He keeps a folder of clippings and notes, scribbled on post-its and napkins from hotels, to be mined when the need for inspiration strikes. This year’s discarded choices included the church and NHS working together on exorcisms, a deaf child who saw something that he shouldn’t have and a doctor who saved lives on 7/7 who turned out not to be a doctor at all. In the end, however, it started with a funeral.

Standing in Another Man's GraveFive years after being forced to retire the curmudgeonly Inspector, having aged him in real time, Rankin has already written a couple of books centred on a new character - Malcolm Fox, a straight-laced Internal Affairs officer who couldn’t be more different from the author’s more famous creation. Thanks in part to hugely successful television adaptations starring John Hannah and Ken Stott - performances that Rankin confesses he has still never seen - Rebus retains a devoted following. Still, retiring the character hasn’t affected Rankin’s rare pull as a big-name author, if the queue for a signing of The Impossible Dead just before last Christmas is any indication.

To hear Rankin explain it though, his decision to bring back his most famous character isn’t a surprising one. For this new book, Standing in Another Man’s Grave (and if you’ve seen the book’s cover, pictured above right, you’ll forgive me the spoiler), the ex-cop now working cold cases was the perfect protagonist. Inspired by a real-life funeral attended by the author, the book opens with a man watching a funeral from the back of a cemetery. As the man contemplates his own mortality - and craves a cigarette - his identity becomes obvious. 

That isn’t to say that the author isn’t aware that reviewers and interviewers will see the return of his most famous character as a failing or a moneyspinner. Rankin, who sees crime fiction as “a means of chronicling our times,” has always prided himself on the realism of his work and cringes at the idea of contrivance. At the back of his head is of course that other famous Edinburgh-connected writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who brought his own Sherlock Holmes back from the dead. The comparison is as overly-dramatic as it is all too obvious, given that Rankin was on record as far back as 2007 saying that Exit Music was Rebus’s "retirement" rather than "final" novel, and it is far less contrived to bring a character back in from the Oxford Bar rather than up a sheer cliffside.

In between fact-finding missions to the remote Scottish countryside, a trip to the Fife village where the writer was born and a trip to the Hay-on-Wye festival to drum up some pre-publicity for the return of his beloved character, we see Rankin complete at least three drafts of the book before sending it to his editor. In the author’s eyes what exists after an often-tortuous process is the “perfect novel”, but it is hardly a finished book.

It is the stage after the final draft is completed that viewers will likely find most interesting, which is why it’s a little disappointing that it is tacked on to the end. We meet Rankin’s editor, who gets the pleasure of telling the millionaire author when to do better in the form of tracked changes, albeit briefly.

There’s an argument to be made, I’m sure, that parts of the process that aren’t shown - the pacing up and down, reciting bits of dialogue that don’t work to yourself; the endless cups of coffee and the time wasted on a certain football management game; the back and forth over edits you don’t want to back down on - make for less interesting television than footage of a bestselling author handcuffing himself to Alan Yentob in order to promote the very documentary you are watching. Which is why, if you’re more interested in the writer than the writing,The Case of the Disappearing Detective is a fantastic insight into what makes Ian Rankin tick.

  • Standing in Another Man's Grave is published on 8 November
Ian Rankin discusses the stretch of road that inspired the book below

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