Ian Rankin's Desert Island Books

Ian Rankin's Desert Island Books

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
The one book that I would flag up from my teenage years would be A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. The film had been banned, but nobody stopped you getting the book out of a library or from a bookshop. So to me, books were forbidden fruit. The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest… this was the adult world that I wasn't supposed to be allowed into.

A Clockwork Orange was also about violence, and that – when I was becoming a teenager in 1972-73 – meant Doc Marten boots, bovver boys, skinheads, football hooliganism. It pinpointed the world that existed around me, but did it in a very literary way.

One of the first things that I ever wrote was at school was a rewrite of Lord of The Flies as though it were taking place in my school in the mid-1970s, where the sixth-formers persuaded the little kids they should go on a rampage and kill all the teachers. I had a fertile and febrile imagination.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark / Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stephenson
People sometimes ask: “Where does the crime fiction come from?”. I didn't read crime fiction when I was a kid, unlike most crime writers I know. It came from an interest in Edinburgh's dark underbelly.

I spent three years studying The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as a postgraduate student at Edinburgh University; at that time I was starting to try be a novelist, and for me there was this darkness at the heart of Edinburgh that you find in Jekyll and Hyde, and you find in Miss Jean Brodie – I thought what I needed to do was to update this, because nobody seemed to be writing about contemporary Edinburgh (this is pre-Trainspotting).

A crime novel is a pretty good way of exploring society, and that Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the city was very much there in my mind when I wrote Noughts and Crosses, my first Rebus novel, in which the main character is haunted by a character from his past who's almost like an alter ego. And in the second novel, Hide and Seek, the gentlemen of the town are going to a club called Hyde's, where they watch unemployed young men beat the shit out of each other.

The name Brodie is quite interesting, because she is descended from Deacon William Brodie, who was a real Edinburgh character – a gentleman and craftsman by day and a housebreaker by night. He would break into people's houses having fitted locks for them; he was eventually hanged on a scaffold that he had helped to build. So we're never quite sure if Jean Brodie a hero or a villain.

Laidlaw by William Mcllvanney
When I was studying Scottish literature at Edinburgh University, William Mcllvanney was a name we came across a lot. He was a proper literary novelist. Then he wrote a crime novel, called Laidlaw, with a character who reads philosophy in his spare time but then also pounds the mean streets of 1980s Glasgow. And I think something clicked – something between the wanting to write about contemporary Edinburgh and then this literary author writing a crime novel. I thought, hey, I can do that in Edinburgh! I can just move that detective, that trope, that notion, and try it here.

I remember going to the Edinburgh Book Festival – 1985, I think it was – and queuing up to get my copy of Laidlaw signed by William Mcllvanney. I said: “I'm writing a book that's a bit like this but it's set in Edinburgh,” and he wrote in it: “Good luck with the Edinburgh Laidlaw.”  Twenty years later I got him to sign another book and he said, “Edinburgh Laidlaw done good.'”

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell
Number four is the book I chose when I was on Desert Island Discs, a twelve-volume series called A Dance to the Music of Time. . .  [Reading them] as a novelist, they are brilliant novels about being a novelist. The economy of them is fantastic. The language is fantastic. Every sentence has been crafted. The notion that through this series, characters will ebb and flow… it’s like life, when people you knew at university you'll suddenly meet again in their forties or fifties. People who were important to you will disappear from your life over time.

As someone who had written one Rebus novel, I thought: shit, he's a good character, maybe I should write another. There are lots of series characters in detective fiction, but in the past they would go from plot to plot, from book to book, without having aged, or evolved, or been affected by the things that happened to them. What Anthony Powell taught me was that you don't [have to] do that. You allow your character to age in real time, and to reflect on everything that's happened to them. 

I didn't know my books would be a series when I started. I had no idea it was going to be 17 books, with one more coming. At least one more.

White Jazz by James Ellroy
I left university. I got married, moved to London and worked as a journalist on a music magazine. After four years in London my wife said, “Let's go and live in France and you can try to be a full-time writer. We'll get a little house in the middle of nowhere, and we'll just be self-sufficient; we won't need much money.” So we did that. And at that time I started reading James Ellroy.

White Jazz is the most extreme of his experiments: the Ulysses of crime fiction. He was a big influence because I discovered early on that he uses real cases and real characters in some of his books. That was a sea change for me, because I then wrote Black and Blue, which was the first really successful novel, and used a real case: Bible John, a serial killer working in Glasgow in the late 1960s who disappeared after having killed three women. What happened to him? Where did he go? 

For me, it was using the real case that was a breakthrough. It needed lots of research. And then, of course, you've also got the moral compass – there are people alive who were affected by it, so you've got to be very careful that you're not glamorising the case. The Impossible Dead also revolved around a real unsolved ‘crime’: a guy who died in mysterious circumstances in the 1980s, which may or may not have been suicide.

Rivals by Jilly Cooper
We were living in France in a house in the middle of nowhere; the first winter over there, we were snowed in. I had read every book in the house apart from Rivals by Jilly Cooper, which belonged to my wife.

I read it and thought it was absolutely amazing. It was very Dickensian. It has really interesting, well-researched detail – it's basically about a franchise coming up for grabs at a TV station and the two competing companies that want that franchise. It has these gloriously comic three-dimensional characters who you just want to hang out with. Lots of bad puns, lashings of sex… and I just got hooked! It became a little rite for me, that every summer I would reread Rivals.

The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough
There's a lot of young crime writers that I've just met for the first time. There's one called Mel Sherratt – and she's only on ebook [in the UK] at the moment; she's very interesting.

And Sarah Pinborough, whose The Language of Dying I'm reading just now. It’s about a father who's dying; his grown-up kids get back together at the house to wait for him to die, but there's all kinds of secrets and weird stuff happening, just on the periphery. I'm really enjoying it, it’s really well written.

The crime community's a very catholic church – we embrace everybody. And if literary novelists want to come in that's fine; if horror writers want to come in that's fine; erotica, that's fine. That's what I like [about the crime genre] that isn't so evident in the literary community.

Standing In Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin is published by Orion. Ian Rankin was talking to Ed Wood.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess is published by Penguin Essentials. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is published by Penguin Essentials. A new edition of Laidlaw by William Mcllvanney is published by Canongate in May 2013. A Dance to the Music of Time is published by Arrow. White Jazz by James Ellroy is published by Windmill Books. Rivals by Jilly Cooper is published by Transworld. The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough is published by PS Publishing.