Sunday, October 5, 2008
In 1987, a Scottish graduate student named Ian Rankin created the grouchy Edinburgh police detective John Rebus. The chain-smoking, hard-drinking Rebus exposed the underbelly of Edinburgh society, a world of addicts, gangsters and conmen, with the detective often following corruption up to the highest government levels. From his novels “Knots and Crosses” to “The Naming of the Dead,” Rankin helped elevate the Rebus series into the pantheon of the literary detective mysteries.
In Rankin’s 17th Rebus novel “Exit Music”(Little, Brown, $25) the tough and bitter detective inspector is 10 days away from his mandatory retirement at 60. Rebus must solve the grisly murder of a a prominent Russian dissident poet while a delegation of Russian oligarchs are in Edinburgh. At the same time, his nemesis, the brutal ganglord Cafferty, is given a savage beating. Rebus tangles with his own police brass in an attempt to solve a gritty, convoluted murder where everything is not that it seems.
Rankin, 48, spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in Edinburgh.
Q. How did you wind up retiring Rebus in his 17th mystery?
A. A few years ago, an Edinburgh detective I know said to me, “Hey, this guy Rebus was 40 in 1987, right?8 0 I said yeah. “In 2007,” he said, “he’s going to be 60. If he’s a cop in Scotland, he’s going to have to retire.”
When I wrote the first book, I never planned to write a series. Rebus was actually supposed to die in the first novel. I was trying to write an updated version of “Jekyll and Hyde” with a cop instead of a doctor. Quite early in the series, I decided the books would take place over a real space of time and would reflect the changes in the world around me.
The reason I wrote the first book was in part because there was an Edinburgh that no one was thinking about. People thought that Edinburgh was a very quiet, genteel city where nothing happened. Away from the tourist spots, there were areas of great deprivation and the problems of drugs, drug violence and prostitution. I wanted to write about contemporary society and its problems.
Q. You’ve said that Rebus came out of your head fully formed in 1987. How has he changed in the last 20 years?
A. Rebus has changed dramatically over time. Slowly over the course of the series, I’ve given him my taste in music. In 1987, he liked classical music and jazz, but I realized it was easier for me to write about rock and roll. Rebus has been changed by every case has undertaken. He evolved with each book, becoming more cynical, and his health and personal life continued to deteriorate. The only thing that saves him is hi s job. That has been his whole life and that makes me worry about him now that he is retired.
Q. Rebus’ cat-and-mouse game with the master criminal Cafferty went on for more than two decades. How did Cafferty develop as a character?
A. In my third book, Cafferty appeared for only six lines as a criminal Rebus was giving evidence against. It was a couple of books later that I realized that Cafferty was a very good way of capturing all of society’s bad stuff in one character. He became Rebus’ Moriarty. Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Rebus and Cafferty are very similar. They have the same background, they are the same age and they both feel like dinosaurs, the last of a dying breed. You can never tell if they are going to become bosom buddies or if they are going to destroy each other. For both men, the lives they have chosen for themselves are lives without family and friends. Rebus rejects the nice women I’ve given him to play with. He’s just not very good at relationships.
Q. Detective Inspector Rebus pulled you out of graduate school and turned you into a bestselling author. Is it a shock that the crotchety old Rebus has retired?
A. I haven’t thought much about it until people ask me. I have a lot of other projects going on. If I want to bring Rebus back, there are realistic ways to do it. Retired cops often come back to handle cases on the Cold Case Review Team. Detective Sergeant Siobahn Clarke, his sidekick, could take over the series, with Rebus being there to help or to hinder the future cases.
(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger on June 22, 2008)
“The Ninth Circle of Cubicle Hell”
In Ed Park’s hilarious debut novel “Personal Days”(Random House, $13), a crew of office drones wait at a unnamed New York City corporate hell for the downsizing ax to fall. In a witty satire of office culture, Park harnesses the Orwellian doublespeak of corporate bloodletting, where workers are stripped of tasks and fired by speakerphone, while the survivors wait for the ominous “Californians” to fly in and brutally fire the rest. An eerie calm settles in as the workers realize that someone is out to destroy the company.
“Personal Days” was inspired in part by the corporate gutting of the once-venerable Village Voice, where Park was fired as an editor in 2006. In his dead-on character studies, Park introduces the reader to Pru, the ex-graduate-student-turned-cubicle inmate, and Jack II, who gives unwanted “jackrubs.” There is Sprout, the Canadian boss who may be evil, and the bizarre Grime, a British worker who has a murky past and an impenetrable accent. There is the highly neurotic Lars, and Jill, who compiles the “Jilliad,” a collection of ludicrous business writings that becomes an almost holy text for the remaining workers. The literary coup at the end of the novel is a 52-page sentence, written by a worker trapped in an elevator with a dying laptop, answering all mysteries and making a strangled plea for love.
Park, 37, was raised in Buffalo and educated at Yale and Columbia universities. He was the editor of the Village Voice Literary Supplement and is a founding editor of “The Believer.” Park spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a cafe not far from his Manhattan apartment.
Q. You started writing fragments of “Personal Days” during the mass firings and layoffs at the Village Voice. What was the process?
A. At some point in 2005, I started writing and didn’t really know what I was working on. “Personal Days” is definitely not a roman a clef about the Voice, but as things at the Voice started going downhill more and more, there was more material. I had never written about the office before and all of a sudden, I was sitting on this great material--all these interesting hierarchies, the interactions between people in the office and the language they use. As the downsizing accelerated, this chaos and confusion magnified everything. The stories were screaming to be used.
For most people at work, there is the mystery, who rules over me? During the Voice downsizing, you had executives flying in from out of town. They have this embarrassingly dumb swagger and they pretend they know everything, which they clearly don’t. I was treated shabbily, but there were people treated worse. I eventually was fired over speakerphone.
Q. The novel is written in three distinct sections--a breezy, first-person narrative, an ominous report written in outline form and a 52-page single sentence. Why?
A. If you are going to write a novel about restructuring a company, you should have a structure that is changing, that is being restructured. That’s why there are three distinct narratives in the novel. The first section is “bad things are happening,” but it is entertaining and written in bite-sized sections. The second section is more anonymous. You have this report but who wrote it? The third section needed to be radically different. It is a love letter and a solution to various mysteries.
Q. The boss Sprout seems to be evil, but with a human face. How did he evolve in the novel?
A. I thought it was funny to have a character like Sprout who was described as “a proud native of Canada.” I started trying to make Sprout be seen as a bad guy through the eyes of his employees. By the end, I wanted him to be a more sympathetic character. You have to figure out the position that he was put in with the firings and who put him there.
Q. In one hysterical section, a fired worker named Jill leaves behind a notebook called “The Jilliad,” a compilation of absurd business sayings. How did you write this?
A. The Jilliad is the one part I didn’t write on my laptop. I wrote it using an old-fashioned typewriter. The typewriter gave the section a neat tone. Jill is this milquetoast character who won’t go into therapy because she is too shy. On the other hand, she is this incredible project going on, that speaks to incredible depths of character. I made all the business homilies up. It was me doing a workout on the typewriter.