Edinburgh Book Festival review: Ian Rankin

In completing the late William McIlvanney’s novel, The Dark Remains, Ian Rankin achieved a brilliant feat of literary ventriloquism – and made a discovery that could impact on his own Rebus series, writes David Robinson
Ian Rankin PIC: Hamish BrownIan Rankin PIC: Hamish Brown
Ian Rankin PIC: Hamish Brown

William McIlvanney left behind a title for a novel about Laidlaw’s final case as a detective and a couple of pages of dialogue-free notes when he died in 2015 – but as Ian Rankin told the Edinburgh book festival yesterday, there wasn’t enough to tempt him to write the last word on the fictional Glasgow detective.

With the Laidlaw prequel The Dark Remains, which McIlvanney started and Rankin finished and which was launched yesterday, it was different: there were a full 100 pages of notes. It is set in 1972 – five years before the publication of the novel usually hailed as the progenitor of "tartan noir” (though McIlvanney himself hated the term).

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Even so, Rankin said, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to do justice to McIlvanney’s work and only took on the project after being reassured that he could walk away from it if he didn’t think it was working out. His own style was less poetic and more direct, so turning it into McIlvanney’s was “an act of ventriloquism”.

Interestingly, he revealed that he’d always firmly resisted the temptation of writing a Rebus prequel, not least because of all the research involved in getting the 1970s background detail right. Now, he said, he’s less certain about that.

As chair Karen Campbell pointed out, Rankin had to turn detective himself to find the clues in McIlvanney’s mind. Personally, I find his literary ventriloquism convincing, and this fascinating event clearly showed the care and love that make it so.

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