Friday, September 22, 2006

Ranking on Rankin ...

... or, What the heck is "Celtic noir," anyhow?

I've read and heard some harsh opinions of Ian Rankin's writing recently, notably on The 10 Greatest Detective Novels, and, to tell the truth, I'm not the world's biggest fan of his novels. They can be plotty, joyless, willfully morose, and glutted with detail. Oddly enough, the first Rankin that I read, the short story "The Dean Curse," was precisely the opposite: pointed, witty and sharp. I mean, you can tell by the title that the man has a sense of humor. That tells me he's capable of wonderful things.

So, Rankin fans, what's the deal with him? Has he been writing so prolifically with so much success for so long that he sometimes feels an irrepressible urge to try something different? Is the wit of "The Dean Curse" an occasional break from the gloom and detail that he shovels on elsewhere? Or is the reverse the case? And what is Celtic noir, anyway? Does the term have any meaning beyond the blurbs? If I recall correctly, I've seen the term applied to Rankin, to Ken Bruen and maybe even to Bill James, and I don't see a heck of a lot in common among those writers.

Is there an anti-Rankin backlash? I mean, we couldn't possibly be jealous of the man because he's been an acclaimed novelist since he was in his mid-twenties and has already won an award for lifetime achievement and is still probably younger than a lot us are, could we?

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose like all these things, it is a matter of taste. I came to Rankin quite late on, recommended by a fellow-reader at work, and so there were about 6 to read when I discovered him. I found the early one or two in the Rebus series uneven, but he hits his stride as the series develops. There are one or two that are weaker than the others later on, but I find them absorbing, very easy to lose myself in them.

I think this is all a matter of taste -- some people rave about James Lee Burke for example, but I can never get into him.

All these series authors are probably "an acquired taste". Rankin's books are partly a social comment on the scottish stereotype -- hard drinking, poor diet, chip on shoulder about the English, lots of poverty, etc. Maybe it speaks more to people in the UK who are aware of the stereotpye (particularly so when it comes to England and Scotland soccer teams).

I also like the way that Rankin integrated government corruption and the scandal of the scottish parliament, particularly its infamous building, into some of the Rebus books -- again perhaps this is less meaninful if you aren't reading about it in the papers all the time?

September 22, 2006  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The three novels I've read are Knots and Crosses, Strip Jack and Black and Blue. The first was Rankin's first novel, I think, and the second was lighter in tone than most of the Rebus books, according to Rankin himself. Given this, I'm not sure how true a picture I have of the Rebus series.

One aspect of Rankin that might be somewhat lost on non-UK readers is his treatment of the seamy side of Edinburgh. Rankin makes sure the readers know that the streets are not just seedy, but that the festival-goers and tourists and the rich don't go there. Outsiders like me may not be familiar enough with the nouveau-chic side of Edinburgh to appreciate the contrast Rankin is setting up. Make a similar contrast between, say, Fifth Avenue and Hell's Kitchen or Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York, and most Americans will get it right away.

September 22, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read my first Rankin novel in Scotland this summer. It was a paperback copy of "The Falls" that I bought in the bus station in Glasgow. My husband and I both got into it, occasioning our only fight of the trip: Allan solved the problem by cutting the book into segments so we could read it at the same time.

By the time we got to Edinburgh, we were keen to visit several of the places mentioned. At the Museum of Scotland, a docent told us he saw Ian Rankin fairly frequently, because Rankin goes there to mull and get ideas for novels.

The restaurants and bars he mentions are easy to find and his novels are like a guide to E-burgh (in fact, I saw such a book on sale in Blackstone's, near E.U.).

My only problem with the novel was that it didn't arc as I thought it should. Too many things that happened were given equal attention, so I felt the book wasn't shaped to maximize its shocking moments. Other than that, it was a fun read -- and I don't read much crime fiction, either American or continental.

September 22, 2006  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...


If Black and Blue is an accurate guide, you could have cut the book into enough segments to keep a large family reading.

You said The Falls didn't arc well. I had a similar complaint about Black and Blue: the main plot. The mini-novel about the oil rig. The lives of man who flees to escape being dragged into the killing. It was all too much.

September 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is "Black and Blue" the novel about Bible John -- the supposed killer of two women he met at a dancehall in Glasgow in the 1960s? I'm sort of interested in reading that one because I know something about the case -- as in, I saw a documentary on it on BBC America.

When we were in Scotland, I discovered that some of Rankin's novels are now being made into TV movies -- not with the skinny Scot who played Rebus before (John something, the guy who was with Gwyneth Paltrow in "Sliding Doors"), but with an amazing, middle-aged Scottish actor named Ken Stott. I will watch those, whenever they make it to BBC America, because Stott is one of the best actors going.

He played a detective in a series (again, BBC America) called "The Messiah," which we saw a few segments of. He was also the finance minister in "The Girl in the Cafe," an excellent BBC/HBO movie that came out last summer (and recently won a best movie award at the Emmys).

September 23, 2006  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's the one. Thanks for the heads-up. Do the British have a penchant for hiring amazing middle-aged actors to play fictional detectives? I'm thinking of the fine Inspector Maigret series starring Michael Gambon that Granada TV made a few years ago -- available for rental at fine video stores.

September 23, 2006  

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