ian rankin

A Rebus Puzzle

This summer brought the Edinburgh International Book Festival. In 2020 it all took place online and the 2021 festival was a hybrid, with some writers being beamed in and physical audience numbers restricted. 2022 saw us back to something akin to normal.The largest venue could accommodate 650 spectators and was often filled to capacity. As well as doing an event of my own, I chaired Oliver Bullough’s talk about his latest book, Butler to the World, and was heartened to see a sell-out crowd in attendance to hear to his stories of dodgy financial practices. Behind the scenes, I caught up with writers I only ever seem to see at UK festivals.The sun shone fairly regularly and Edinburgh would have been looking its best had it not been for the bin strike, which gave a faintly post-apocalyptic hue to proceedings.

My novels are almost always published in October, which makes it awkward to know how much to let slip at events such as the Edinburgh Book Festival and Bloody Scotland (which takes place in Stirling each September). Proof copies of my latest have started floating around – always a nerve-racking time. Until they are jiffy-bagged and posted, the only people who’ve read the story and given me feedback are my publisher, my agent and my wife, Miranda. The last of these is naturally the most important. Ours is an old-fashioned relationship in that I print the novel out and hand it over, then try not to interfere as Miranda goes through it, scribbling in the margin.The fewer notes the better as far as I’m concerned, though even a single word (‘Eh?’ ‘What?’ ‘Improbable!’) can be devastating.

During the pandemic I upped my workload in the hope that my brain would be too occupied to spend much time worrying. The result was two novels, one stage play and a TV show, all written within about sixteen months. I’ve been fairly lazy this year – just the one book written. October’s novel is called A Heart Full of Headstones and was written between January and June this year. One of my biggest preliminary decisions was whether or not to set it during the pandemic.This is something many fiction writers will have to face in the next year or two or three. In the end, a visit to my local pub gave me the answer. A drinker was sporting a lanyard to which was clipped a laminated card informing the general public that its wearer had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and therefore was exempt from wearing a mask. My central character, John Rebus, has had the same condition in the past few books. I began to wonder what use he might try putting that card to.The book’s fate was sealed – it would be set during the time of Covid.

When I wasn’t writing during lockdown, Miranda and I binge-watched TV shows and broke open a lot of jigsaws. Jigsaws had always been a Christmas tradition, but we started completing one or two a week, so it was a thrill when the jigsaw company Laurence King proposed a thousand-piece Rebus puzzle, designed by Barry Falls. Having already done Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare and Joyce puzzles, I had the feeling this would be a hoot, and so it proved.The jigsaw will feature scenes and characters from almost all the Rebus novels – though you will not find a representation of the man himself. I’ve never had any idea what he looks like and am keen for fans to retain their own individual versions of him as far as possible. I say that because readers often tell me that after seeing Ken Stott in the TV adaptations, that’s who they visualise as they read. But the most recent interpretation was done by the actor Brian Cox, who performed an online monologue written and filmed during lockdown. Next year may bring new TV episodes and a stage play. Whose turn is it to be Rebus? As yet, I’ve no idea.

I’m writing this diary in the chaos of my small office. Tomorrow a removal team is due to arrive and haul everything to a larger location. We downsized a few years back and my idea was that a small, self-contained office would lead me to have tidy habits, but I keep buying LPs and publishers keep sending me books and it has become claustrophobic. My new office is about twice the size, so at least for a while it will look well ordered.There will be more bookcases and record shelves, and gaps too, which, over time, will doubtless be filled. Not that I’ll have long to adjust to my new quarters. October’s book necessitates a tour, actual rather than virtual – interviews and media appearances and visits to bookshops in the UK and Ireland, followed by a week of events in Canada. It’ll be odd to be on the road again, living out of a suitcase and hoping travel plans aren’t jinxed. I do count my blessings though – so few authors are afforded proper book tours. And who knows, maybe inspiration will strike. A Heart Full of Headstones may have been written here in Edinburgh, but I got the idea for the book while on a Caribbean holiday with Miranda in early January, typing daily notes into my phone, building up the plot and adding characters and themes. It strikes me as only faintly odd that I could afford that holiday due to a fictional character who has never set foot outside the UK and almost certainly never seen the need to own a passport. Thanks, Rebus.