The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Modern Library #76)

(This is the twenty-fifth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Finnegans Wake.)

We are two days away from the great Muriel Spark’s 100th birthday. Yet, despite New Directions’s valiant reissue of her remarkable work only a few years ago (along with a quiet event planned on Thursday at the 92nd Street Y, which stands incommensurately like a shaking child in the vast shadow of Edinburgh’s impressive celebratory blowout), we are no closer to literary people universally singing her praises on this side of the Atlantic than we are in stopping men from wearing black socks to bed. And that’s a shame. Because Muriel Spark was truly one of the most innovative writers of the 20th century. She was a bold and an economical stylist who packed far more attentive detail and character speculation into one paragraph than most contemporary writers wrangle into a chapter, and she did so with high style, grace, and ferocious wit. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her most enduring and popular novel (and, through a magical twist of fate, the next volume in the Modern Library Reading Challenge), certainly sees Spark’s great gifts on full display, but it is also a book that demands constant and even obsessive study.

I have read Brodie four times within the last two years. It is very possible I will read it four more times within the next two. I am inclined to press this richly entertaining book, no more than a hundred pages, into the hands of anyone who purports to take literature seriously, but who has somehow ignored Spark to hold up some bland offering from one of those “Most Anticipated” lists published at The Millions that nobody will remember or quote from in a decade.

Brodie is both a portrait of an exuberant teacher determined to educate a carefully selected group of girls so that they may be better equipped when “in their prime” and an incredible tableau of 1930s Edinburgh, such as the “wind-swept hockey fields which lay like the graves of the martyrs exposed to the weather in an outer suburb.” Miss Brodie may or may not be a tyrant. (She is fond of Mussolini and Italian culture.) One can read the book anew and come away with an entirely different opinion of the title character. The novel tantalizes us with flash-forwards (which can also be found in many of Spark’s later novels, such as The Driver’s Seat and Territorial Rights, which are also well worth your time) revealing the fates of the schoolgirls in adult life, leaving us with impressions of how formative life and education influences unknowingly in later years. One reads little snippets of the six girls under Miss Brodie’s tutelage from the present and the future– Rose “pulling threads from the girdle of her gym tunic” in class or Jenny not experiencing any sexual awe “until suddenly one day when she was nearly forty, an actress of moderate reputation married to a theatrical manager” — and asks how much Miss Brodie is responsible for corrupting fate, with Spark slyly implicating us as we become more curious.

Muriel Spark wrote this masterpiece in less than a month. This is especially amazing because, much like the magnetic properties contained within the glowing amber necklace Miss Brodie wears when off-screen romance inspires a new step in her exacting stride, this short novel reads as if an exquisite jeweler had painstakingly ensured that not a single element could ever fall out of alignment. And Spark sculpts many glistening carats along the way: the fictitious letters that two girls write after imagining Miss Spark’s love life, the creepy, one-armed artist Teddy Lloyd who also teaches at the school and disguises his true pedophilc nature through the sham panacea of Catholicism and family life, and the lingering question of which schoolgirl betrays Miss Brodie and causes her to lose her job. The novel presents us with many hints and details that hide in plain sight, but that all contribute to an atmosphere in which the girls end up coming up with explanations (often fictitious and sometimes apostate) for what is both seen and not seen. Miss Brodie’s careful lessons, which include a field trip into a rougher part of Edingburgh and often involve knowing the roots of words to better understand them, are perhaps being applied in dangerous ways. And in an age where people judge people who they haven’t met based on what they think they know from a social media profile, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie remains potent and necessary reading.

Spark’s lecture “The Desegregation of Art,” delivered before a crowd of New York literati on May 26, 1970, offers useful insights into the ambitious gauntlet she felt obliged to throw down as an artist and gives us a sense of what is very much at stake in Brodie. She firmly believed that literature existed to infiltrate and fertilize the mind and denounced any fiction that stood in the way of this lofty artistic goal. If that meant tossing out socially conscious art that was not “achieving its end or illuminating our lives any more,” then this was the price to pay for better art that reflected the depths and thorny hurdles of life. She insisted that “ridicule is the only honourable weapon we have left” and believed that addressing wrongs emerged not so much from instant outrage, but through “a more deliberate cunning, a more derisive undermining of what is wrong. I would like to see less emotion and more intelligence in these efforts to impress our minds and hearts.” Much as Spark detested being a victim in her life, she believed that art reveling in victimhood turned readers into oppressors.

So we are left with Brodie as a remarkable volume that fertilizes our minds even as it challenges our own interpretations. Spark’s honorable ridicule in Brodie may very well lie with the way she shrewdly sends up how people are perceived for their failings based on superficial shorthand. And this extends even to the hypnotic allure of Miss Brodie’s own teaching. At one point, Miss Brodie observes that “John Stuart Mill used to rise at dawn to learn Greek at the age of five” and that the teacher herself learned from this lesson. Mill is a particularly funny choice, given that this philosopher was known for utilitarianism and that we are seemingly experiencing a short “utilitarian” novel when we read Brodie. But, of course, we aren’t. For one wants to reread it yet again.

The intrepid literary adventurer plunging forward on a bold bender for real-life inspiration is often viewed with contempt by any practitioner transforming bits of his life into analeptic artistic truth withstanding the test of time. The adventurer shakily balances the author’s complete works like vertiginous trays stacked tall enough to scrape plaster flakes off the ceiling as the letters and the collected marginalia and the autobiographical tidbits are swirled into a overflowing flute by a jittery finger serving as a makeshift cocktail straw. If not written off as a slightly smarter TMZ reporter who has somehow retained the ability to read despite being barraged daily by Harvey Levin’s soul-destroying smile, such an apparent gossipmonger, even if she is cogent enough to know that fictional characters rarely spring from a singular source, is still tarnished as that rakish yenta who reads fiction for the wrong reasons.

As I have ventured further into this years-long Modern Library project, I’ve come around to the daring idea that, for certain sui generis authors (and Muriel Spark is certainly one of them), one may indeed find deeper appreciation in the way they forge art from the people surrounding them. It isn’t so much the schema of who matches up with whom that should concern us, but rather the fascinating way in which characters defy an easily identifiable origin, turning into a form of fictionalized life that feels just as real on the page as any spellbinding life experience. There is a fundamental difference between the novelist who runs out of raw biographical material mid-career, her limited inventive faculties and inherent disconnection with humanity dishearteningly revealed with mediocre and unconvincing and blandly repetitive offerings in late career (see, for example, the wildly overrated Joyce Carol Oates, surely one of the great living literary embarrassments in the early 21st century), and the novelist who seizes the reins of an indefatigable spirit that runs quite giddily to the very end.

For someone like Muriel Spark, who was fiercely protective of her privacy and her public image, this is not necessarily a slam-dunk proposition even when many of the real life details match up. The formidable literary biographer Martin Stannard secured Spark’s reluctant blessing to get his hands dirty on details occluded in Spark’s remarkably opaque autobiography, Curriculum Vitae. Stannard, like many before him, pegged Christina Kay, the schoolteacher who taught Spark at the age of twelve, as the predominant inspiration for “the real Miss Jean Brodie.” Both Kay and Brodie insisted that their girls were the “crème de la crème.” Miss Kay also took Spark and her fellow students on great cultural adventures into Edinburgh. Both were keen on Italy and shared a rather clueless interest in Mussolini. (As late as 1979, Spark would insist that Miss Brodie was not a fascist and that Brodie’s admiration for Il Duce had more to do with Benito’s powerful masculinity, as it was perceived in 1930, which leads one to ponder the 53 percent of white women voted for Trump in 2016. Some weaknesses in human perception regrettably endure, despite the best history lessons.)

But much as the great Iris Murdoch regularly transcended reality to achieve jaw-droppingly marvelous art, which she defined as that which “invigorates without consoling,” one finds a similarly spellbinding spirit within Spark’s equally incredible novels. Once you read The Girls of Slender Means, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Memento Mori, The Driver’s Seat, or A Far Cry from Kensington, if you have even the faintest desire of wanting to know how art works, you may find yourself obsessing over just how she was able to put so much into her novels. Ian Rankin, writer of the rightfully well-regarded Rebus novels, found himself precisely in this very position, reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie over and over again over the course of thirty years and always finding new details, even wondering if the titular character was the hero or the villain. (Some of Rankin’s work on Spark when he was pursuing a Ph.D is available online behind a paywall.)

And if you read Brodie, you may very well join us on this pleasantly fanatical quest. We are told at the end, with one of the characters hiding from the truth of how her life has been altered, “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.” And that seemingly innocent notion, in Spark’s nimble hands, is the white whale that turns any reader into Ahab.

Next Up: Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop!

Cycles (FYE #3)

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This week, we examine cycles. Are our lives and our culture locked within cycles? Are we aware of it? Should we be aware of it? Or is there a certain folly in paying too much attention? Our quest for answers has us talking with bike shop owners and a Finnegans Wake reading group. We reveal how Raiders of the Lost Ark caused two teenage boys to become consumed by a relentless cycle of remaking the movie they loved with limited cinematic resources. We also talk with Scottish novelist Ian Rankin about how he returned to Inspector Rebus and got caught up in cycles he couldn’t quite describe and Lesley Alderman, the author of The Book of Times, who shows us how being aware of time doesn’t necessarily preclude you from finding enticing new cycles of existence.


3a

Like Riding a Life

We begin our investigation into cycles by wandering around Brooklyn on a cold Saturday afternoon talking with various bike shop owners about how the cycles of life relate to their passion for bicycles. Our gratitude to Fulton Bikes, R&A Cycles, and Brooklyn Cycle Works for sharing their thoughts and feelings, which range from calmness to restrained anger. (Beginning to 4:11)


3b

Commodius Vicus of Recirculation

Every month, the Finnegans Wake Society of New York gets together in a Spring Street apartment and reads aloud a page of James Joyce’s cyclical masterpiece. And then they discuss the page, whatever theories they can find, for about two hours. Organizer Murray Gross tells us why it’s important to slow down. Other members tell us how they became unexpectedly married to the book. (4:11 to 10:09)


3c

Standing in Another Man’s Cycle

Are cycles a red herring? I spoke with the novelist Ian Rankin to get more answers. Rankin’s latest book, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, marks a surprise return to the Inspector Rebus series, which Rankin had closed out in 2007 with his 17th Rebus novel, Exit Music. Somehow Rebus eluded retirement and manged to cajole Malcolm Fox, the protagonist of Rankin’s new series, into the mix. This seemed as good a time as any to press Rankin on whether he’s caught in a pleasant cycle. Our side trips in this conversation include consideration of Anthony Powell, the A9 Motorway and its homicidal possibilities, Skyfall, 20th century policing instinct, and how men in their sixties get into fistfights. (10:09 to 40:15)


3d

Pardon Me, Do You Have the Time?

We meet Lesley Alderman, author of The Book of Times, a collection of time-related data that will make your more conscious of the clock than Christian Marclay. But we learn how being aware of the time doesn’t mean you can’t find enticing new cycles hiding behind the corners of your complex existence. (40:15 to 45:51)


4e

Raiders of the Lost Remake

It was 1982 and three twelve-year-olds in Mississippi decided to remake Raiders of the Lost Ark. This was before the Internet, before the movie had been released on VHS. These kids had to hustle. What they did not know was that their ambitious project would take up their next seven summers. They would grow up making this movie. We talk with Chris Strompolos, who starred as Indiana Jones in the remake, and Alan Eisenstock, author of Raiders, a new book documenting the remake. Was all the fun and youthful ingenuity a mask? Can a cycle of remaking beget a new cycle of remaking? (45:51 to end)


Photograph by Steven Sebring.

Loops for this program were provided by Psychotropic Circle, DextDee, and HMNN.

Follow Your Ears #3: Cycles (Download MP3)

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Jason Allardyce: How a Sunday Times Journalist Ripped Off Ian Rankin, Bat Segundo, the Observer, and an Australian Producer

On April 24, 2011, the Scottish edition of The Sunday Times published “Rankin admits Twitter addiction” on page 21. It was written by Jason Allardyce, a 40-year-old who was named “Scottish Journalist of the Year” in 2003. His MySpace page states that he likes to go by the name “wolfspider” and that he is based out of Callander. But “wolfspider” is a lonely man. He only has two friends on MySpace: the ever-popular Tom and MySpace UK.

On Easter morning, I knew nothing about Allardyce. A friend had forwarded me this Deadline News report by Peter Laing, in which I recognized quotes identical to my conversation with Ian Rankin on The Bat Segundo Show. The conversation was not accredited. As someone who had investigated the Cooks Source scandal and who remembered the online tarring and feathering, I was appalled that anybody would still consider that ripping off other people’s journalism — even from behind a paywall — would still be okay. But this time, I was on the receiving end for a project that I make little to no money on. For the Rankin show, I had devoted perhaps 25 to 30 hours of my life to reading Rankin’s books, conducting research, interviewing the man for an hour, and mastering the audio. My labor was being exploited. I immediately contacted Laing by email. And on an Easter Sunday, a little less than an hour after I contacted him, he replied back on Twitter:

The Sunday Times? Murdoch’s newspaper? I told people on Twitter about what had happened and asked if anybody could send along the article. And a very friendly pescatarian vegetarian in Scotland going by the name of @SeymourSunshine located the article and photographed it for me.

I transcribed the article. I was stunned to learn that 215 of the 758 words in Jason Allardyce’s article were taken directly and without attribution from my Bat Segundo interview with Ian Rankin. I emailed Alladyce and his editors. And then I discovered that I wasn’t the only one getting played by the wolfspider. An additional 126 words in Allardyce’s article were lifted wholesale and without attribution from two whole paragraphs that Rankin contributed to this Gaby Hinsliff compilation in The Observer from February 13, 2011. To add insult to injury, Allardyce plagiarized a third source, pilfering a good 74 words from this Lisa Zilberpriver piece from World News Australia (January 18, 2010). For all three original pieces that Allardyce has used, a copyright notice was clearly listed on each of the pages.

In other words, Allardyce did not obtain a single original word from his subject for his article.

Ian Rankin was kind enough to confirm with me that nobody from The Times had contacted him. So if we add up the tally, 415 of Allardyce’s 758 words, or 54% of his article, were taken from three separate sources. That’s considerably more words than a famous fair use case here in the States, where The Nation published 300 to 400 words of verbatim quotes from a 500 page Gerald Ford memoir without obtaining permission, was sued, and lost. So that it can all be made clear, here is a breakdown of Allardyce’s liberties (with the unattributed quotes indicated in bold and, for Bat Segundo, the specific times in the program where the words are mentioned):

The writer admitted that Twitter was “taking up more of my life than it should.” [Bat Segundo interview, 27:08-27:09]

He added: “I’ve a kind of addictive personality so I’m always very careful to try to avoid things that can become addictive. [Bat Segundo interview, 27:01-27:06] It’s like a diary. I used to keep a page-a-day diary when I was a kid from the age of 12 till I was 29 and I had to fill up every single page. I couldn’t leave any blank space.” [Bat Segundo interview, 27:49-28:00]

He conquered the diary addiction after moving to America with his wife for six months. [This part is paraphrased from Bat Segundo interview, 28:00-28:30]

But I use Twitter like it, as a kind of memento mori of everything I have done. [Bat Segundo interview, 28:33-28:37] When I started writing a new book, I made a vow to myself that I wouldn’t go near Twitter until the end of the working day and I kept that up for about three weeks. Then, if I stopped for a cup of coffee, I would check Twitter; stop for lunch, check Twitter. I have to be careful about how many people I follow because, having an addictive personality, I feel the need to read every single tweet on the timeline so if I’m following 300 people that’s potentially 300 people’s tweets I’m reading in any one day…. [Bat Segundo interview, 30:24-30:49]

I’ve got to go back and read them all. When I wake up in the morning, I’ll go back to the night before and scroll through the night to find out what people were up to.” [Bat Segundo interview, 30:51-31:00]

Rankin said he went through a stage of having a similar addiction to viewing bids on eBay, and that he cannot play computer games because he believes he would be unable to stop, having gone without sleep as a student in order to play them. “It’s insane,” he said. [Bat Segundo interview, plagiarized paraphrase, “I went through a stage of buying vinyl on eBay, buying records…,” 31:02-31:09; “…if I finished browsing eBay…,” 31:10-31:12; direct “It’s insane,” 31:21-31:22]

He recently wrote: “I work from home and work on my own. Twitter connects me to the outside world, and makes it feel as though I’m in a huge, airy office full of funny, well-informed people.

“It gives me instant news, clever jokes, views, and reactions. Fans of my books can contact me, and I can let them know what I’m up to.

“Twitter is also my diary. I can scroll back through my tweets and recall what I was up to on any particular day. I keep in touch with friends make new ones, renew old acquaintances, and sometimes am even gifted ideas for stories. All from my office chair, in 140 characters – which also makes it a fantastic daily exercise in editing and concision.” (The last three paragraphs taken entirely from this Guardian article.)

Internet addiction is well recognised, and has even led to the residential treatment programmes in America to help people wean themselves from obsessive use of Twitter, eBay, Facebook, texting and video games. Research published last year suggested that the speed and unpredictability offered by social media stimulates dopamine, which can create an addiction to seeking, rather than finding, contact through them. It added that as more people join in, the scope for overuse grows. (Taken from World News Australia article.)

While it is true that Section 30 of the UK Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act of 1988 specifies a fair dealing exception “for the purpose of criticism or review,” the attribution must contain “a sufficient acknowledgment.” Furthermore, according to English law, there’s very little I can do to stop Allardyce or any other person “reporting current events” from infringing upon copyright provided that “it is accompanied by a sufficient acknowledgment.”

What is a sufficient acknowledgement? Well, unlike much of the American tax codes, you can always count on English law to be concise and thorough. Here’s Section 178 of the CDPA:

“sufficient acknowledgment” mean an acknowledgment identifying the work in question by its title or other description, and identifying the author unless—

(a) in the case of a published work, it is published anonymously;

(b) in the case of an unpublished work, it is not possible for a person to ascertain the identity of the author by reasonable inquiry;

It may very well be a common practice for some UK journalists not to provide attribution. But when they don’t, they are clearly breaking the law. And they are exposing the newspapers and outlets that they write for to considerable legal liability. But more important than such legal propriety, it’s just plain rude and antithetical to the spirit of human togetherness.

But Allardyce’s failure to credit any of his original sources extends far beyond the prospect of fair dealing and fair use. His disingenuous usage could be interpreted as an intent to deceive.

Let’s approach the question form a practical position. Why is attribution important? Well, take this UPI report from September 5, 2010. The UPI quotes Cardinal Keith O’Brien: “Our detailed research into BBC news coverage of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, together with a systematic analysis of output from the Catholic church, has revealed a consistent anti-Christian institutional bias.” That’s an extraordinary statement. If you’re at all interested in the many opinions, you’ll want to know where it comes from. And the UPI, because it is a responsible service, notes in its article that The Sunday Telegraph first reported the Cardinal O’Brien quote.

Jason Allardyce, on the other hand, doesn’t make such a distinction when he produces the same quote in his article, and he doesn’t attribute The Telegraph. This causes the Richard Dawkins Foundation (where I found Allardyce’s article, now conveniently hiding behind a paywall) to believe that Allardyce is conducting original reporting. This also causes confusion for the BBC, which erroneously reports that Cardinal O’Brien said these words “in an interview with the Sunday Times.” So Allardyce and The Sunday Times gets credit for a quote that they cut and pasted from another newspaper.

Now let’s say that, several years from now, a historian is looking into biases against religion (or the mythical claims of biases) during the early 21st century. The historian will want to go straight to the original source so that she can ensure that the quote and the context is accurate. But if she has to wade through Allardyce’s misleading attribution, this is going to cause needless work for the historian. Allardyce’s misleading attribution also creates the false impression that the Sunday Times was the central place for that news story.

And because Allardyce has published his “article” in a prominent newspaper, with anyone who reads the article believing that the interview comes from him, there’s very little that I can do to get proper credit or compensation.

I have emailed Allardyce the following terms for resolution:

(a) a public apology, both prominently in print and online, for taking my quotes without asking or attributing;

(b) the issuance of a correction, both prominently in print and online, indicating that the Sunday Times and Jason Allardyce lifted quotes from my radio program, along with a URL directed to my site,

(c) a donation of £500 (as compensation for using my quotes and others without permission or attribution) to Reporters Without Borders.

It’s impossible for me to be entirely objective in this report. I am doing the best that I can to keep a level head. Still, in an age where Arianna Huffington insists that it’s “wrong and offensive to insist that HuffPost is exploiting journalists,” the time has come to stand up against anyone who believes that they can get away from stealing anybody’s labor. If ostensible professionals feel that they are above the law and above the decency of community, then what’s the purpose of their collective existence?

[4/26/11 UPDATE: As of Tuesday afternoon (UK time), Jason Allardyce has not returned my telephone calls and emails.]

The Bat Segundo Show: Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #390. He is most recently the author of The Complaints.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Playing good cop and bad cop with his interlocutory approach.

Author: Ian Rankin

Subjects Discussed: The benefits of talking with a Scotsman on St. Patrick’s Day, sartorial description in prose, pleated miniskirts, balancing descriptive detail against dialogue, people who are intended to be larger than life, on not describing the central character, physical descriptions that compete with the expectations of television, Malcolm Fox vs. John Rebus, trying to make a protagonist who isn’t a maverick compelling, the adjacent sounds of garbage being emptied, what tastes in music reveal about character, family and backstory, the connections between Rebus’s father in The Black Book and Rankin’s father, moving past autobiographical connections, Rankin’s early pursuit of an English degree, avoiding the existential possibility of Ian Rankin the Accountant in early years, parents who don’t understand, Woody Allen, the limitation of locations in Edinburgh to write about, Doors Open, financial institutions and cities, Edinburgh as a microcosm for Scotland, the economic collapse as a creative muse, occupations that permit access to every layer of society, Michael Connelly’s start as a journalist, journalists-turned-novelists, sources who retire, making things up vs. research, not getting too close to the police, The Wire, the disadvantages of amateur detectives, Mario Puzo making the mob up in The Godfather, when imagination turns you into an unexpected police suspect, Hide and Seek‘s close similarities to real crime, serendipity, the universal nature of office politics, how much police procedure a writer really needs to know, being oblique enough to be believable, writing a first draft in six weeks, William Gibson, writing and revising on the road, Alexander McCall Smith’s prolificity, the danger of forgetting plot details, eating multiple candy bars per day as an alternative to nicotine addiction, nonsmokers who write convincingly about smoking in fiction, Rankin’s addictive personality, computer games, Iain Banks’s addiction to video games and Scottish roads, Rankin’s addiction to Twitter, being unable to tweet using a European phone due to the draconian wifi costs established by hotels, keeping a diary vs. maintaining a Twitter feed, writers as public property, the drawbacks of instant feedback, Facebook, The Social Network, Twitter as an exercise in editing, eBay addiction, compartmentalizing time, the possibilities of bringing Rebus and Siobhan Clarke back, not having a storehouse of ideas for future books, comics and working on Dark Entries, the creative differences when working with another person’s character, John Constantine, Neil Gaiman, hanging out with Alan Moore, naming characters after literary writers and rock stars in The Complaints, when too many character names begin with the same letter, long and ambitious novels, biases against shorter novels, Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the poet’s talent of distillation, the rising market share of ebooks, commercial forces and maintaining a mystery series, attracting new readers for a series, parallels between the publishing and the music industries, speculating on a future industry of freelance editors, independent bookstore alternatives to Borders, the modest revitalization of vinyl, the frequency of cheek gestures within The Complaints, repeating words and phrases, intrusive commas, manuscript fatigue, becoming part of the old guard mystery writers, and keeping books fun after multiple books.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Michael Connelly, who was also a journalist at one point, has discussed how he was worried that, as a journalist, a lot of his sources and a lot of his contacts would possibly go away. And this would prevent him from getting a lot of really interesting stories that he could put in his novels. I’m wondering if you’ve faced anything similar to that with your network of sources. Or whether you have accidentally burned a source. Have there been any problems?

Rankin: The problem with my sources is that a lot of them have retired.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Rankin: If they were my age — I mean, I’m going to be 51 this year — most of them have retired form the police. So guys that I met in my mid-to-late twenties when I was starting the [Rebus] series are now gone. And you either have to find a new set of people. Or you just make it up. I mean, it is fiction after all. What I do is that I’ve got enough people around me who can help me with the detail if I need them. But I don’t want to get too close to the police. Because I don’t want the books to become public relations exercises for police. And, of course, the only people who will talk to you are the good cops. The ones who are straight, you know. They’ll talk to you. Well, if that’s the only people you’re meeting, you might feel constrained. You might feel you can’t suddenly write about cops who’ve broken the rules or who’ve bent the rules a little bit. So I only go near the police when I need them. I mean, with The Complaints, I did need to talk to someone who worked in internal affairs. I set that up through another contact, who’s a senior police officer. But it was a couple of hours of conversation. And that was all I needed. That gave me a sense of what this organization would be like, what the office politics would be like, what kind of powers they have, what kind of stuff they did. Two hours. And the rest of it is invented.

Correspondent: Have facts and background been more of a limitation than a help throughout your work?

Rankin: Well, I do think there’s restrictions on what you can and cannot do. Because readers are much more sussed than they used to be. I mean, they’re watching cop shows on TV — whether it’s reality shows or dramas.

Correspondent: Or The Wire for that matter.

Rankin: Yeah. But they feel they know what goes on forensically. They feel they know what goes on at a crime scene. So you can’t suddenly start taking liberty. I mean, I’m very lucky. Because my guys are professional cops. Therefore, they would be at the scene. It’s much harder if you’re talking a kind of Miss Marple character. This notion that an amateur detective — a Lord Peter Wimsey or a Miss Marple — could just turn up at the crime scene and trample all over it. And that the cops wouldn’t give him a good kick up the backside and send him on their way. These days, it’s much harder for readers to take on board and accept. So I don’t write about private eyes. And I don’t write about amateurs who just happen to get caught up in drama. I write about people who get invited into the drama. Because that’s their job.

Correspondent: On the other hand, there’s, of course, the famous story that Mario Puzo made all of The Godfather up. So much so that mob people were reading this and they were saying, “How did he know so much about this?” Is this similar to your situation when you invent something? That almost inventing layers or systematic connections is almost better than relying on getting something right.

Rankin: Well, I mean, on the very first book that I wrote, I got the idea for the plot. And then I went to a police station to talk with a couple of cops. You know, just to get some background and some detail. And they asked me what the plot of the book was. And I told them. And it turned out that it was very close to a case they were working on. So they viewed me as a possible suspect for a short time. Until they decided that I was just insane. But the next book after that — Hide and Seek — two or three years after the book was published, a similar case came to light. And that gave me great kudos in Edinburgh. Because cops and the public alike said, “How did you know about this stuff?” I mean, it was kind of there. It was happening a few years ago. But it wasn’t. It hadn’t come to light then. And I had just invented it. And it came true later on. So people thought I knew what I was talking about. But I really wasn’t. I was making it up. And that continued to happen. There was a lot of serendipity. That I would just write about something that then seemed to be true. And it worked the other way as well. I would take a really true thing like the G8 — when the G8 came to Scotland. And that was just a great source of information. All you had to do to research that book [The Naming of the Dead] was to live in Scotland for a week. And that was a very easy book to write from my point of view. Because about half of the stuff in there actually happened. Up to and including President George W. Bush falling off his bicycle while trying to wave to a police officer. In my book, it’s Rebus. I mean, what if it wasn’t? It was someone else.

The Bat Segundo Show #390: Ian Rankin (Download MP3)

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