4 de març de 2015

Face it, book snobs, crime fiction is real literature - and Ian Rankin proves it

[The Telegraph, 4 march 2015]

In joining the Scottish establishment, the writer of Rebus and Malcolm Fox shows his genre is not a ghetto


Allan Massie

I first met Ian Rankin in 1983 when I held a fellowship in creative writing at Edinburgh University. He was working on a PhD thesis on Muriel Spark and supporting himself with a part-time job as a clerk in the Inland Revenue. He used to bring short stories for me to read, criticise and advise on. They were sensitive and perceptive stories mostly about childhood in the old mining communities of Fife. Some years later, he turned, sensibly, to crime, and after he had published one novel, I recommended him to my then editor, Euan Cameron at the Bodley Head.
Euan took him on, and Ian has never looked back. He became the most successful crime novelist Scotland has ever produced. He made respectable Edinburgh dangerous, beautiful Edinburgh sinister. There are more than 20 novels featuring his policeman John Rebus. They have been adapted for television and a tourist industry has grown up around them.
When I knew him first, he was a thin boy who dressed as most students of the Eighties did. He is middle-aged now, but looks much the same to me, and still dresses as a student and the rock music fan he has always been. But of course, though you mightn’t think so to look at him – or even to hear him speak – he has, as they say, gone up in the world. You can’t be that successful and not do so. This week he has become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which means that he has been received into Scotland’s intellectual elite or, if you prefer, Establishment. I am pretty sure it won’t change him.


There are still people who look down on the crime novel. No crime writer has won the Man Booker Prize. For many, despite the example of PD James and Ruth Rendell, as well as Rankin, crime fiction is still seen as genre fiction, and therefore inferior to the straight novel. It is still viewed with the sort of condescension that irritated Raymond Chandler 70 years ago when he complained of “that snobbism which makes a fourth-rate serious novelist, without style or any real talent, superior by definition to a mystery writer who might have helped recreate a whole literature” – which is, of course, what Chandler knew he had done himself. Some of that snobbism has actually withered, partly because the “straight” or “literary” novel is generally less highly regarded. Nevertheless, there is still a foolish feeling that the crime novel is somehow an inferior genre.

This is palpable nonsense. Many of the greatest novelists have crime at the centre of their work. Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian is a crime novel. Bleak House is a crime novel. So, of course, is Oliver Twist. Dickens indeed was fascinated, even obsessed, by crime and the criminal mind, as were Balzac and Dostoevsky. In the Thirties, André Gide, future winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, declared (though he found it difficult to tell a story himself) that Georges Simenon, creator of Maigret and author of scores of dark novels, was the greatest living novelist writing in the French language. That fine novelist Nicholas Freeling even claimed that “in prose fiction, crime is the pre-eminent, and often predominant, theme”. This may be an exaggeration, but not much of one.

Today, as Rankin recognised early, the crime novelist has one advantage denied to authors of the straight or literary novel. Unlike them, he can range over all levels of society, for crime breaches the barriers of class. These barriers mean that the modern literary novel is too often confined to the horizontal, because, to be realistic, it will tend to deal only with one layer of society, with people all leading much the same sort of life. But crime permeates society. It runs through it from top to bottom, and may make connections between them.
Rankin’s Rebus has investigated members of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish financial establishment, and found links between them and organised crime. He has disentangled relations between wretched immigrants, professional criminals and respectable members of the bourgeoisie. Moreover, recently, Rankin has had Rebus – and his other, very different, policeman, Malcolm Fox – delving into past crimes that cast dark shadows on the present.


Rankin’s Edinburgh is a place of such shadows and secrets. The city has always had a dual character: classical and romantic, elegant and sordid, rational and passionate. Robert Louis Stevenson was alert to its split personality. The only surprise is that he set his quintessentially Edinburgh novella, the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in London, not his native Edinburgh. Nobody who knows Edinburgh has ever believed that Jekyll and Hyde didn’t walk its airy Georgian streets and the dark, fetid alleys and closes of the city’s Old Town. Rankin’s Rebus knows them both, has investigated modern versions of the respectable physician and his sinister alter ego.
Some authors identify with their characters. When Chandler saw Philip Marlowe as a “soiled Galahad”, he was projecting himself on his creation. But there has always been a tension between Rankin and Rebus. Apart from their taste in music (deplorable, in my opinion), they have little in common. And yet Rankin has sometimes spoken of seeing Rebus as the brother he never had – a brother of whom he might have been somewhat in awe and even afraid.
There is violence in Rebus; he is on the side of the law, but is uncomfortable with not only his superiors, but all the pillars of the community. Rankin has tried to retire him, but can’t get away from him. Rebus sits on his shoulders like the Old Man of the Sea on Sinbad’s. More recently, with Fox working in distrustful collusion with Rebus, Rankin has introduced a new source of tension. If Rebus represents excessive Scotland, Fox, a recovered alcoholic, is the epitome of buttoned-up, self-regarding Scotland. I hope they are still bound together in the novels to come. Neither, however, is likely ever to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Rankin’s novels are addictive, but they are also disturbing. They ask: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – “Who will guard the guards?” The police are the guardians of society, but in their habit of mind, and in the temptations presented to them, they may be closer to the criminal than to those whom it is their duty to protect. Moreover, Rankin shows us what we might, in our comfort zone, wish to shut our eyes to: that the historian Lord Acton was right when he said that power corrupts, and so the worm of corruption eats into the fabric of society. His novels are great entertainment, but they also ring alarmingly true.
“Crime,” as Freeling said, “is the pathology of the human condition, the moment at which the delicate balance of metabolism tilts into morbidity.” Quite so. I wonder if the august Royal Society of Edinburgh realises just what a clear-eyed and subversive new Fellow it has admitted to its distinguished and highly respectable ranks. Rebus, of course, will never have the letters FRSE after his name, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, at his creator’s prompting, he soon finds himself delving into the dark and murky recesses of the past lives of a comparable gathering of Scotland’s great and good.


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