I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction lately. For me, one author stands out: Ian Rankin. His Inspector Rebus novels, set in Edinburgh, are taut and atmospheric. His writing style has often been emulated but rarely matched. Why?
I’d like to explore Rankin’s style with examples from his second Rebus novel, Hide and Seek, published in 1991. I won’t talk about the plot here, but mainly writing technique and style.
What is Rebus’s character? He’s a cynic. He’s a joker. He’s a dogged and stubborn pursuer of the truth. Despite everything, a kernel of idealism propels him. Without it he would be completely lost. It’s the glimmer of hope that keeps him going, and us reading.
Rankin enjoys shining a torch into the dark corners of Edinburgh. We see the narrow tenements of the Old Town, with their stone walls, steep steps, and murky history. We visit the splendours of the Georgian New Town – but in Rebus’s world the glamour and money is a front that hides corruption and vice. And we travel to the city’s outskirts, and see the squalor of decaying public housing. So everywhere there is darkness in one form or another. Rebus’s world is not a good place for optimists.
This second book is based on the Jekyll and Hyde story, so it’s not surprising that Rebus finds evil lurking beneath every respectable veneer. He’s a policeman, after all.
Grim settings are easy to reproduce, but good prose is harder. Many writers have tried to adopt the spare style of Rankin, but Rankin’s writing isn’t just terse – it’s delicate and evocative and elegant. His prose is punctuated with vivid and compelling images.
We meet Rebus at a dinner party.
John Rebus stared hard at the dish in front of him, oblivious to the conversation around the table, the background music, the flickering candles.
So here, in one sentence, Rankin has introduced the setting, not describing it any specific way, but picking out details of sound, sight, the behaviour of the other guests, and Rebus’s own emotional reaction.
But the more he stared at the half lobster on his plate, the more an unfocussed despair grew within him.
One single detail (a lobster) tells us an awful lot about the kind of dinner party this is. If a picture is worth a thousand words, one of Rankin’s sentences is surely worth a a few hundred. And in the same sentence we seamlessly move from Rebus’s comfortable surroundings to an internal existential crisis. How’s that for economy of writing?
Rankin is particularly spare with his descriptions. He’ll toss in one or two vivid images, but rarely tells us anything in laborious detail. Here he describes Rebus’s dinner hostess.
Bright red hair, cut short and pageboyish. Eyes deep, striking green. Lips thin but promising.
A few well-chosen words convey far more than mere surface appearance.
Delving below the surface is one of Rankin’s favourite activities. Rebus is a Christian, and a fairly angst-ridden one at that, and thoughts of death and repentance are never far away.
‘What was wrong with you?’ she said, but all he could think about was the minister’s handshake, that confident grip which bespoke assurances of an afterlife.
Again, one sentence does a lot of heavy lifting.
Here’s a villain, about to dispose of a corpse.
The only sound came from the slow chug-chugging of a cement mixer on the site. A man was feeding it spadefuls of grey sand and remembering the distant days when he had laboured on a building site. Hard graft it had been, but honest.
Three sentences convey both setting and action. We get a potted view of the man’s life story, and his sense of regret for the way things have turned out. There’s menace in the monster of the cement mixer as it devours sand and cement, ready to bury a body beneath a new office development. And once again, we’re reminded that the influx of new money into Edinburgh goes hand in hand with its grubby underbelly. Crime feeds off wealth, just as it feeds off poverty.
Here’s the corpse that’s about to be buried.
His skin was the colour of pencil shading, darkest where the bruises lay.
Again, one single detail is offered as description. And with it comes a hint at how the victim died – all this, in just thirteen words!
Just two more examples before I finish.
The evening was sticky with heat, the streets quiet for a Saturday.
Another smile, and she was gone in a flurry of silk and a glimpse of black nylon.
Simple sentences, easy to read, yet packed with memorable details that convey far more information than seems possible from so few words.
So, how to write like Rankin?
It’s not just a matter of omitting pronouns. It’s not enough to be gloomy and miserable. That’s why so many writers who try to write the next Rebus end up being both boring and joyless.
Rankin’s settings may be dark, and Rebus downcast, but light flickers like a candle in the darkness. His humorous commentary makes us smile when all around is grim – especially then.
Many of Rankin’s sentences are short, but they stand next to much longer sentences. Rhythm matters.
He writes sparely, particularly when it comes to description and setting. He tosses in one or two well-chosen and vivid details. They may be nouns, adjectives or verbs but they stand out by being unusual or evocative.
His sentences often use contrast, switching abruptly from external to internal, hope to despair, resignation to optimism, and sometimes from grim to bleak.
And he makes his short sentences work hard, as if several sentences have been condensed into one. They are relentlessly economical.
None of this is easy. There isn’t a simple formula to writing like Rankin. The man’s a genius. But perhaps it is possible. If Rankin’s books teach us anything, it’s that a faint shimmer of light awaits beneath every darkness.