The cold, dark world of Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, fog, misted windows, bodies in fireplaces or government offices: How unlike the pretty city built on a hill that we tourists see.
Yet Rankin’s detective, Inspector John Rebus, compels us to follow him down the labyrinthine ways of evil doers. He is so popular that visitors can now take ‘Rebus Tours’, the “history and mystery” of the real locations of Rebus cases as well as the more typical Holy Rood Palace and Edinburgh Castle. The tours start from The Royal Oak, one of Rebus’ pubs, on Saturdays.
The night we were in Edinburgh, a cool Monday in June, the minuscule Royal Oak – tiny bar plus a half dozen battered tables, hosted a traditional jam session with musicians wandering in and out as the mood or the tip jar took them. Some of the onlookers were European tourists looking for Rebus. Doesn’t Rebus mostly drink at the Oxford Bar in the city’s New Town? Yes. But he also had a confrontation with his nemesis Big Ger Cafferty at the Oak. One evening Rebus stops there for a nightcap, and is shocked to find Cafferty has been released from prison and is celebrating with a song.
The story of the pub and the singing thug illustrates the marriage of sentiment and hard-nosed thuggery in Rankin’s novels where Edinburgh’s dark and historic Castle broods over the city and the city feels like a character itself. The Scots have fought each other, the Vikings and the English from this place for centuries and the Castle with its prisons, working garrison, tales of siege, poison and death figures hugely in the Scottish narrative. Since they abolished their own Parliament over three hundred years ago to live under Westminster, only regaining it in 1999, the Scots have felt a sense of wrong. That abiding uneasiness, the sense of wrongs unrighted, pervades Rebus’ adventures in the city of the new Scottish parliament.