Ian Rankin: ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a perfect gem of a story’ | Books
My first memory of reading
I read children’s comics voraciously from an early age, starting with Bimbo (four or five years old) and going through the Dandy and the Beano to the Victor and the Hotspur. Then there were the Sunday Post newspaper comic strips – Oor Wullie and the Broons. I tried to draw my own comics, but I wasn’t really an artist. By the way, I still read comics – and I give them credit for being my gateway to literature.
My favorite book growing up
In my pre-teens it was mostly Ladybird and Enid Blyton books. I don’t remember reading Winnie the Pooh or Thomas the Tank Engine, and I didn’t meet Dr. Seuss until I was a parent myself. The only real books I kept and returned to were the comic book Christmas yearbooks. I was also a sucker for TV links, so I would have directories based on Gerry Anderson (Joe 90; Captain Scarlet) or Dr Who or The Persuaders! shows.
The book that changed me as a teenager
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. I was 14 or 15 when I read it. A bunch of paperbacks with titles like Skinhead or Suedehead were circulating around the schoolyard, but I felt A Clockwork Orange was of a different order of merit. It was very literary for me. There was a moral purpose to this; the language was fascinating. While my friends hung around street corners waiting for trouble, I was sequestered in my bedroom, writing stories influenced by Burgess’ sharp short novel.
The writer who changed my mind
Joseph Heller, especially for Catch-22, which I studied in high school. I was the “smartest” in my family and destined to be the first to go to college. My parents thought that accounting would be a good subject to study, because there would be a decent career at the end. But I was falling in love with the world of books, and Catch-22 made me want to study American Literature. I persuaded them that I should study literature at the University of Edinburgh.
The author who made me want to be a writer
William McIlvanney was a huge influence on me in my early twenties. He came from a similar background and wrote exquisitely about the world around him. He had won the Whitbread Prize in 1975 for his novel Docherty, but he also wrote mystery novels. I saw that crime was a way to dissect society and its various problems, to tackle big themes while being entertaining and exciting. In 1985, at the Edinburgh Book Festival, I put my copy of Docherty in McIlvanney’s hand, explaining that I was writing about Edinburgh as he wrote about Glasgow in his Inspector Laidlaw novels . He listed my book ‘Good luck with the Laidlaw of Edinburgh’.
The author I came back to
Robert Louis Stevenson. I tried to read Kidnapped and Treasure Island in my teens, but didn’t really appreciate their creator until later, realizing what an extraordinary talent he was. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde have been a big influence on my detective fiction, addressing as he does the question of why we humans can so often become inhuman.
The book that I read
A dance to music from the time of Anthony Powell. I received the first three volumes on a birthday while still a student. I struggled at first because his world of privilege didn’t resonate with me, but I persevered, mostly because of the poised elegance of the prose, and fell in love with him. I read it again during the first Covid lockdown and enjoyed it again. Widmerpool is one of the great creations of the 20th century and shows how a jester can rise to prominence and become something of a monster.
The Book I Could Never Read Again
I was a fan of adventure stories when I was a teenager and Alistair MacLean was a favorite. A few of his best books still hold up, but many now feel clunky and dated, although if the Where Eagles Dare movie ever appears on TV, I find myself glued to it.
The book I discovered later in life
The Snow Was Dirty by Georges Simenon. I read it just over a year ago and was blown away. If you only know Simenon for his Maigret novels, this may be a revelation. It’s the chilling tale of a venal young man from WWII France who is eventually imprisoned by the Nazis. We start by despising it and end up supporting it. This led me to other hard novels by Simenon. He was a great writer.
The book I am currently reading
Empty Ryan O’Connor. It’s a novel about a young man from Glasgow whose life is falling apart, told in almost hallucinogenic prose. I glimpse Alexander Trocchi and William Burroughs in it, but it retains its own unique quality.
My comfort read
Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It’s a perfect gem of a story, morally complex, heartbreaking, funny and featuring Scottish literature’s most charismatic anti-hero. Plus, you can read it in a day.