Crime Scene: Edinburgh - the Ian Rankin exhibition

Ian Rankin

Cate Simpson steps behind the police cordon at a new exhibition celebrating Edinburgh's best-loved gumshoe

There’s a pleasing circularity to this exhibition at the National Library. Ian Rankin wrote much of Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus book, in the reading room here, thanks to a PhD thesis on Muriel Spark that fell by the wayside. With Rankin’s famed protagonist Inspector Rebus packed off into retirement this year, it feels right that this celebration of his 20-year journey should be housed in the place where it began.

I have a confession to make at this point: I haven’t read any of the Rebus novels, or at least I hadn’t before this weekend. So I was curious to discover whether a display of Rebus artifacts would hold much interest for me. I half expected a motley collection of titbits for the die-hard fan, but although there’s a bit of that here, there is also something for those with only a passing acquaintance with the series.

For kids, there is a murder mystery to investigate, in which the man himself is a suspect in a grisly crime inside the Library (I peeked, but I won’t give away the ending). There is also a cordoned-off ‘crime scene’, where you can peer at things through a magnifying glass or dust for fingerprints. I was tempted, but the tables were set at that slightly too-low height that quietly reminds adults that they’re supposed to be reading the informative explanations of DNA and fingerprinting behind them rather than getting sand all over the floor.

I was particularly taken by the photographs of Rankin’s workspaces over the years, complete with scattered papers and Post-Its sprinkled along the walls, but there are hints here also of an answer to a question often asked about writers: where does fiction end and the writer’s own reality begin? This is particularly pertinent to Rankin, who is so revered in Edinburgh that he could have been out clearing the streets of those dangerous criminals himself. So it is interesting to learn, for example, that Rankin takes inspiration from news headlines, weaving the real happenings of Edinburgh (like the opening of the new Scottish Parliament) into his stories.

The extent to which Rankin’s version of Edinburgh has begun to bleed back into the cultural life of the city is evident in the section devoted to Inspector John Rebus himself. Strategically placed information boards around a reconstruction of the good DI’s desk testify to the ways in which local residents have begun to blur fact and fiction: for example, when Rebus’ retirement at 60 became imminent, MSP Helen Eadie campaigned to increase the police retirement age to 65. Unsurprisingly, Lothian and Borders’ finest were unimpressed by the proposal.

I asked our guest editor if he was tempted to put his whole life on display (a few years before her death Spark herself bequeathed an archive of desk diaries and used toothbrushes to the National Libraries). ‘No, I think this is as much as you’re going to get. I’m quite boring in the real world, all my experiences have been in my head.’

Outside the library the sun is shining, but the dark creations of Rankin’s head persist, in spirit at least, in the hidden places and closes all around me.

Crime Scene: Edinburgh runs at the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh from Wed 24 Oct–Sun 13 Jan.

Crime Scene Edinburgh: 20 Years of Rankin and Rebus

Retrospective of the great detective Rebus and his travails in Edinburgh's murky criminal underbelly, coinciding with the release of what is possibly the final part in the series. Situated in the very place where Rankin wrote much of the first Rebus novel, 'Knots and Crosses', the exhibition tracks the development of the…

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