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REVIEW: Cromarty Crime & Thrillers Weekend 3: writer Ian Rankin shared the writing and other adventures he has packed in since Covid began ... but not much sign of that year off!

By Margaret Chrystall

REVIEW: Ian Rankin: Completing The Dark Remains

The Stables, Cromarty

Saturday 10am

For anyone wanting a clue or two about what Cromarty Crime & Thriller Weekend’s resident bestselling crime writer had been up to while the festival had been away (this lockdown thing, you might remember it …), Saturday morning’s first author talk was the place to be.

Almost every seat was taken at The Stables as a catch-up with Cromarty’s semi-resident author Ian Rankin usually means two things: unmissable little exclusives about upcoming books; guaranteed laughs and insight into the writing of crime fiction.

Ian Rankin's talk Completing The Dark Remains began Saturday up at The Stables in Cromarty. Picture: Georgia Macleod
Ian Rankin's talk Completing The Dark Remains began Saturday up at The Stables in Cromarty. Picture: Georgia Macleod

This time, there was a slight delay as the regular Spotlight slot featured new crime writer Colin McAndrew who shared a piece of his debut crime novel Sad Lisa and how he came to write it. It was one of these inspiring stories of what a difference two years can make at the crime weekend! First, seeing writer Ian and enjoying the Cromarty event had spurred Colin on. And having given up a corporate career that was damaging his health, he was back with his self-published debut in his hands and for sale – and the follow-up, which he also read from …

But anyone starting to worry as the time ticked away, needn’t have. Ian had more than enough left to get into the different projects that had filled up not only his planned year off before Covid hit, but brought him fully up to date. Hot news for anyone not paying attention so far this year, the autumn (October 13) will bring a new Inspector Rebus book A Heart Full Of Headstones featuring another title drawn from the well of memorable lines created by the much-missed Scottish singer songwriter Jackie Leven.

Spotlight writer Colin McAndrew.
Spotlight writer Colin McAndrew.

One of the major projects Ian Rankin had unexpectedly got involved in during the first part of lockdown was the collaboration with the late Scottish crime writer William McIlvanney through publisher Canongate.

Anyone who was at the Bloody Scotland crime convention in Stirling in 2021, would have heard Ian describe in detail how his first looking at the notes left by his friend and mentor McIlvanney created a hope that he could complete a book based on his friend’s charismatic detective Laidlaw. The Dark Remains received excellent reviews when it came out last autumn.

For Cromarty, Ian had brought those original notes and described them to us in detail, revealing different snippets of book ideas were in there, descriptions of character, sometimes with slightly different names, and no ending or solution for The Dark Remains.

Ian described the notes as most like “Basically I was reading inside William McIlvanney’s head!”

And with the complications of social distancing, receiving the notes at first, Ian described: “It was like a dead drop in a spy movie!”

But having accepted the challenge, partly set by William McIlvanney’s widow Siobhan, Ian clearly seemed to have felt the exercise – which he also described as partially like archaeology – was more than worth it when Siobhan wrote him a personal letter saying that reading the book had brought Willie’s voice back to her for one night.

There was even a chance to do a spot of our own detection, guessing the bits where Ian had written a section or McIlvanney, as Ian read a section of the book out loud for us.

“You are exactly wrong!” he revealed with a certain satisfaction!

But having completed the book, Ian described how the chance to work on STV reality TV show Murder Island for Channel 4 came along almost immediately with just 10 weeks before screening, just time to come up with the murder and clues at the heart of the series! The project had been fun, Ian told the Cromarty crowd, though laughed wryly as he described one of the detecting teams which were made up of members of the public, walking straight through blood at the murder scene in the first episode. Though Ian worked on the project based on a fictional island based on Eigg via Zoom, he did grin: “If they came back and said the next Murder Island is set in the Caribbean …!”

The Dark Remains.
The Dark Remains.

But a Rebus play followed, after an invitation from the National Theatre Of Scotland to create something to be seen on screen in lockdown, and Ian’s original preferred actor for the TV Rebus – Dundee’s Brian Cox – played the inspector in Rebus’s Lockdown Blues the one-man piece on screen from the actor’s base at the time in Upper State New York filming Succession.

Admitting that he would probably be finishing the next Rebus, A Heart Full Of Headstones, if he hadn’t been up at the Cromarty festival, Ian answered a few QnAs.

And there was a revelation that in the new book, Rebus – who struggles a bit to get into a police station when he needs to, now he is retired – has been given a lifeline … in the shape of a lanyard to do with his COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).

Other questions included Ian being asked how he enjoyed collaborating – “I’m a terrible collaborator! … I need to sit in a room on my own.”

The writer revealed the first eyes to see any of his new work – “my wife, my agent and my publisher… and they all have feedback,” Ian grinned ruefully. “And you realise you might not have written the perfect novel, again!”

A questioner with ADHD wanted some advice on keeping his writing going and not to end up with loose ends – it’s most important to get something down on paper, no matter how messy, Ian felt, with his own first draft “messy, messy”.

“Try to do it in short bursts and to do something every day. People ask what pens, computers or notebooks you use. But it doesn’t matter, just persevere… I make up a lot of it as I go along.

“The book has a better idea of where it wants to go than I do,” Ian said, tantalisingly.

Would McIlvanney’s Laidlaw and Rankin’s Inspector Rebus get on if they met, and who would stand the drinks, Ian was asked by crime weekend regular and former Inverness Courier journalist Calum Macleod?

Pessimistically, Ian wasn’t sure they would get on, but that they could probably share a pint together.

As the talk drew to a close while gorgeous sunshine had appeared outside the windows of The Stables, there was one more compelling fiction from Ian Rankin.

“For anyone not from Cromarty, it’s always like this – enjoy the weather!” he grinned. MC

More reviews from Cromarty Crime & Thrillers Weekend on: wwwwhatson-north.co.uk and in the books section!

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