This is a haunted city. For centuries it was haunted by the memory that it had once been a thriving capital before signing that status away to London. It’s a city rife with ghost tours. Its cemeteries teem, and there are myriad streets, tunnels, and caves just below ground level. It’s a city that hides itself away from the world. In the past, whenever invaders called, the denizens would scurry underground, emerging once the triumphant armies had tired of taking possession of what appeared to be a ghost town. The city the tourist sees, even today, is far from the whole story. Edinburgh is also home to a bloodstained history. Burke and Hare were serial killers who posed as grave robbers, slaughtering at least seventeen victims before being brought to justice (after which Burke’s skin was crafted into a series of gruesome souvenirs, some of which can be viewed in the city’s museums).
There were stories of well-respected citizens who had confessed to devil worship, of a coach driven by a headless horseman, of covenanters executed and witches burned. By night, the teenage Robert Louis Stevenson used to creep from his home to consort with harlots, poets, and ruffians in the seediest bars he could find.
The more I looked at Edinburgh, the more I learned. The city is geographically divided-the mazy Old Town to the south of Princes Street, the rational and elegant New Town to the north. The journey the young Stevenson took from one to the other was the journey of Dr. Jekyll toward Mr. Hyde. But was that particular Edinburgh a city of the past? Not really. In October 1977, a year before I’d arrived as a student, two teenage girls had vanished after a night out. Their last sighting was in a bar called the World’s End. Their bodies were found the next morning. For more than two decades, their killers went undetected. Edinburgh ’s students knew that there really was a “bogeyman” out there; we didn’t need the frisson provided by ghost tours and the like.
Contemporary Edinburgh and the city of the past collided in my imagination. I was living in the 1980s but reading about Miss Jean Brodie (set in the Depression years of the 1930s), Jekyll and Hyde, and the Justified Sinner. The Edinburgh I walked through by night seemed to have changed very little. There was a heroin problem, a housing crisis, and HIV was on the horizon. There was bitter rivalry between the city’s two soccer teams, spilling over into weekend violence. Go-go bars would eventually be replaced by lap bars; we all knew that Leith had the red-light district but that the saunas were also more than they seemed. I’d started listening to a lot of music that would later be classified as “goth”: Throbbing Gristle and Joy Division and the Cure. My imagination was darkening all the time. I was sleeping till noon and staying up until four a.m. I was writing, reading, writing, reading, and then writing some more. My short stories had titles like “The Suffering,” “Confession,” “The Violation of Mr Paton,” “Pig,” and “Isolation.” I’d finished my degree but applied to do a PhD with Muriel Spark as the subject. Her stories were filled with supernatural elements, gothic settings, harsh satire, and devilry. But she was such an elegant, subtle, and concise writer that often critics chose not to notice the darkness lying just below the shimmering surface of her prose. I was learning from her too.
One day, I got a letter telling me I’d won second prize in a short-story contest run by the Scotsman newspaper. They would print the story and give me some cash. It was called “The Game” and concerned the last day in the life of a shipbuilding yard. (I’ve no idea where that came from either.) Around the same time, another story was accepted for publication by New Edinburgh Review magazine. Two more were taken by the BBC to be broadcast on radio. A story about a cop patrolling a soccer game was going to appear in a collection called New Writing Scotland. In August 1984, I won a story contest organized by a local radio station. Peter Ustinov presented me with my prize.
Bloody hell, I thought. It could only be a matter of time before my first novel found a publisher.
Ahh, my first novel. It was called Summer Rites and was a black comedy about a hotel in the Scottish Highlands. It never did find a publisher, but I was already busy with my next book, The Flood. Taking to heart the adage “write what you know,” I set this new book in a (thinly disguised) version of my hometown. It did find a publisher, a small press in Edinburgh that printed a couple hundred hardback copies and maybe seven hundred paperbacks, many of which went unsold and were pulped.
The same week I signed the contract for The Flood, I got the idea for yet another novel, set in Edinburgh this time, the gothic Edinburgh I’d been reading about at university, but very much in the present and featuring:
“Male hero (a policeman?)”
On March 19, 1985, I recorded in my diary that “I’ve not written any of it yet, but it’s all there in my head from page 1 to circa page 250.” On March 24, I wrote the first four pages and decided to give it the working title Knots and Crosses. By July 4, the first draft was finished, but for some reason I didn’t start the second draft until September 18. I’d typed out the first couple of revised pages when, again according to my diary, my flatmate at the time, Jon Curt, suggested a trip to the pub where he worked. The pub was called the Oxford Bar: “splendidly uncontrived and open until 2:00 a.m.” It would be a few years before the Oxford Bar appeared in a Rebus novel (I thought bars, streets, etc., had to be fictional in a work of fiction), but I was glad to have made its acquaintance.
From the above, it seems I’ve been guilty of a protracted lie. For years I’ve been telling people that I wrote Knots and Crosses in that apartment in Arden Street, right across the road from where Rebus still lives. But I vacated Arden Street in the summer of 1985 and moved in with two undergraduate students (Jon being one of them) in a place way over on the other side of the city. This means that Knots is even closer to Jekyll and Hyde than I’d guessed, having been written partly to the south of Princes Street and partly to the north.
Because my novel The Flood had been accepted for publication, an agent had come to ask if I was working on anything else. She decided that we should send copies of Knots and Crosses to five London-based publishers: Bodley Head, Collins, Century-Hutchinson, Andre Deutsch, and William Heinemann. Eventually, we’d get the thumbs-up from only one-Bodley Head. But that was all we needed, and I was especially thrilled that I would have the same publisher as Muriel Spark-at least for a short while.
My final diary entry for 1985 ends: “Year after year, there’s improvement.”
When the book was finally published, however, on March 19, 1987, I noted that it seemed to receive less publicity than its predecessor. Working with a publicity budget of zero, Bodley Head ran no advertisements and secured no interviews with newspapers or magazines. The book came and went without anyone really paying it any attention at all. It failed to make the short list for the Crime Writers’ Association’s first-novel award (won that year by Denis Kilcommons), though the CWA asked me if I wanted to join them anyway. It was at this point that I realized the awful truth: while trying to write “the Great Scottish Neo-Gothic Novel” I had somehow become a crime writer. Not that this gave me too many sleepless nights. I had said farewell to the character called Rebus and was moving on to a spy novel called Watchman. It would be another year or two before my editor cleared his throat and asked me what had happened to John Rebus.
“I liked him, and I think there’s more you can do with his…”
I think his clearing of the throat was a way of telling me that he didn’t expect Watchman to do any better than Knots and Crosses, but that maybe the crime genre was worth another try.
This editorial musing was, in retrospect, invaluable, but the gods also seemed to be looking favorably upon Rebus. A TV producer had shown some interest in that first novel. He had formed a new company with an actor (known for his role in a popular soap) and was looking for a promising project. If successful, the action of Knots and Crosses would have been moved to London (to accommodate the actor’s English accent), and that might have been the end of my creation. However, my agent disappeared halfway through negotiations, and the deal fizzled out. (Don’t worry, she reappeared some years later.)
Hide and Seek gave me a second bite at Rebus’s cherry, if you’ll pardon the expression. The name Hyde is implicit in the title-in fact, the book’s working title was Hyde and Seek. I followed it up with a novel in which I dragged Rebus to London (where I was living at the time) so he could hate it as much as I did. By then the damage was done: three books down, I had produced a series. And for as long as Inspector Rebus proved a satisfactory vehicle for my investigations into contemporary Scotland, that series would continue. I just hoped a readership would eventually follow.