Ian Rankin, famous Scottish crime writer with an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews, returned to his home county of Fife on Monday September 27th. Hosted by Topping and Company Booksellers, he appeared at Hope Park and Martyrs Church to discuss his long friendship with the late William McIlvanney, ‘godfather of tartan noir’, and the trials and joys of finishing his friend’s last book, The Dark Remains.
I arrived at the venue twenty minutes early but already a long queue of avid fans had formed down the street. In the growing darkness of night, I caught flashes of white tickets gripped eagerly in their hands. Inside, the church was buzzing with chatter and the pews were packed so I made my way up to the balcony. In my seat, I felt like a student imposter, shunned to the rafters as I looked down upon a sea of silver and grey heads. I had infiltrated a space holy to the disciples of both McIlvanney and Rankin. There was a sizable crowd, a congregation of fans.
Within the first few seconds of Rankin’s talk, the crowd was laughing. He glided from anecdote to reverie to joke with effortless, genuine elegance. From my poor vantage point, I couldn’t even see the author, yet his warm voice resonated throughout the church like a divine presence. He explained that after the death of William McIlvanney in 2015, McIlvanney’s partner, Siobhan Lynch found unfinished notes for his last Laidlaw novel in his study. As McIlvanney’s mentee, longtime friend and ‘natural successor’, Ian Rankin was the one to take McIlvanney’s unfinished notes and mould them into a complete novel. However, Rankin describes the project as ‘a tough ask’. Written during lockdown, The Dark Remains appears to have been an intimate and emotional journey of catharsis for Rankin.
Rankin first met McIlvanney during the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 1985. Running up to McIlvanney in Charlotte Square, clutching a copy of one of the Laidlaw novels, Rankin told McIlvanney of his own first novel which he was writing at the time. Rankin recalls heartily that McIlvanney must have thought him an ‘idiot’ but nonetheless McIlvanney signed his book: ‘Good luck with the Edinburgh Laidlaw’. Rankin may not have known then, but that first encounter was to set in motion a long and deep friendship between the two authors. Rankin describes himself and McIlvanney as being ‘inextricably linked’, like ‘bits on a charm bracelet’.
The Dark Remains follows McIlvanney’s most legendary literary creation, Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw, during his early days working in Glasgow, serving as a prequel to McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy. The late author’s notes left Rankin with a murder, some characters and a basic outline of a plot – yet crucially lacked any clues as to whodunit. That was a mystery Rankin had to solve himself. Set in 1972, Rankin confesses the difficulty in accessing that time and setting for himself: ‘I was 12 years old, living in Fife… I had never been to Glasgow in 1972.’ However, through a long research process, utilising copies of The Herald newspaper from that time period, he succeeded in bringing McIlvanney’s, sometimes ‘unintelligible’, notes into print, mimicking McIlvanney’s ‘poetic and rococo’ style so well that Lynch admitted she could not discern the words of McIlvanney from the additions of Rankin. Moreover, Rankin highlights the ‘patchwork’ nature of the collaboration; the two authors’ words are woven seamlessly together. After sending the novel to Lynch, Rankin received a hand-written letter back from her. In it, she confessed, ‘you brought him back to me for a weekend.’ Many writers have attempted to collaborate with late authors. Few have done it so eloquently as Rankin.
The event’s success can be measured by the response of the audience; the crowd was full of applause, laughter and smiles. I can’t help thinking that a church was the most fitting place to bring the words of the dead alive.
Upcoming events in St Andrews hosted by Topping and Company Booksellers, include (but are not limited to) live and in-person appearances from:
· Colm Tóibín, October 13th: the three time Booker-shortlisted author marks his much anticipated novel The Magician.
· Bernardine Evaristo, October 16th: the 2019 Booker prize winner celebrates her ‘powerful, urgent’ Manifesto.
· Neil Oliver, October 20th: the acclaimed archaeologist and TV presenter speaks on his new book, The Story of the World in 100 Moments.
· Miriam Margolyes, October 22nd: BAFTA-winning actor shares her extraordinary life story in her new autobiography, This Much is True.
· Mary Beard, November 4th: an especially exciting event for students of History and Classics, one of the world’s leading classicists discusses her new book, Twelve Caesars.
Many events offer a ‘scholar ticket’ at the low price of £6 (valid student ID required).