Ian Rankin is framed by the doorway when I arrive at our meeting place, a second-hand record store on the lower reaches of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Flanked and faced by tourist boutiques, Unknown Pleasures exudes an incongruous authenticity with its window display of classic LP sleeves and T-shirts – Joni Mitchell, Joy Division, the familiar Warhol banana of The Velvet Underground and Nico. Inside, the strip-lighting bears down on Britain’s bestselling crime writer as he flicks through the neatly stacked crates. He is the only customer and looks self-absorbed.
Yet Rankin is among old friends. After introductions are made he holds up the album he is inspecting, Crosby, Stills & Nash’s 1969 debut – at first glance in good condition but on closer scrutiny a little scratched. Is he after anything in particular? “No, I’m very much a browser,” he says. “When I go to a record fair or a second-hand record shop, I’m maybe looking for something I used to own but got rid of when I was younger. Or I’m looking for those golden rarities that you might stumble across once in a lifetime – it hasn’t happened yet, not that I can remember.”
Moving around to the Beatles section, he picks out Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He has a copy at home but without the original wave-motif inner sleeve. Pulling out the disk he shows me the codes etched into the run-off groove at the vinyl’s inner edge that denote an early pressing. This one is £35; in better condition it would have fetched double the price.
True devotees will go much further. Signed Beatles albums, authenticated by auction houses, can sell for several thousands, as do those with very low serial numbers. Some collectors narrow their search to a single artist; others might travel the world looking for unusual versions of one treasured album.
“That’s a bit obsessive, I think,” says Rankin. He admits to checking prices on eBay and owning a copy of the collector’s bible, the Rare Record Guide, but his is not a fundamentalist reading. “I just want good-quality vinyl to play at home, for my own satisfaction. And I do play them – I’m not buying them so they can sit in a darkened room and go up in value.”
He is convinced it does sound better: “much warmer, more human, more expansive”. As for the occasional pop or crackle, well, if it’s a great album you don’t mind – and, in any case, “these are your scars”.
I wonder if record collecting is a peculiarly literary vice. “A lot of writers are frustrated musicians – we would much rather have been in a successful rock band.” Indeed, Rankin might have been a contender himself had John Peel been more impressed by some demos sent in by an unknown Scottish outfit called The Dancing Pigs back in 1979. “We played probably half a dozen gigs in total, usually in pubs in Fife – so it wasn’t a long and glorious career. But the nice thing about being a fiction writer is that, of course, in one of my Rebus novels when I needed a huge band to play a Greenpeace gig in Scotland, I decided that that would be The Dancing Pigs – so in fiction if not in fact they became a success story.”
Music was very important to Rebus, the irascible, hard-drinking police detective who almost single-handedly defined the genre of “Tartan noir” in 17 Rankin novels. His successor, Malcolm Fox, who gets his second outing in Rankin’s new book The Impossible Dead, is a different kind of character. “I wanted to put some clear blue water between Fox and Rebus. So I decided, frustratingly, that he shouldn’t listen to music. I now wish I’d gone the other way and made him a musician,” says Rankin. “Maybe I can wean him on to music over the next book or two.”
Rebus had to retire because Rankin’s novels are faithful to the passage of time. “That was important to me,” he says. “I want the books to chart the changes that have taken place in society over the last 20 or 25 years.” The Impossible Dead, inspired by the murder of a prominent lawyer, explores a “dark period” of Scottish nationalism in the 1980s when some decided terrorism was the way to get their voice heard.
We walk to the second shop on our itinerary in the kind of crisp, bright Edinburgh weather that makes you wonder why anyone would live elsewhere; today even the austere stone from which the city is hewn seems a cheery shade of grey. I have been told that Backbeat Records is sometimes so full that it can be difficult to squeeze in. That is true, but when we arrive I realise that this is because it is crammed with stock, the towers of tightly packed crates leaving just a narrow corridor between the door and the till at the back.
Owner Douglas McShane is standing outside beneath a sign of painted caricatures that sums up his eclectic pantheon – Muddy Waters, Jerry Garcia, Miles Davis, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Iggy Pop, Frank Zappa, Janis Joplin, John Lennon. The camaraderie is clear as he and Rankin talk about upcoming gigs and swap Edinburgh news. McShane opened his shop in 1981, disenchanted with the contemporary music of the day; he sees the irony that some of this is collectable now. But only some: in the main he finds that there is little interest in the output of these years. Here, as in Unknown Pleasures, one has a sense of a culture whose great triumphs are receding in time – celebrated in record shops that serve ever more as reliquaries, guarding their diminishing store of holy objects.
Is Rankin’s love of vinyl essentially nostalgic? The classics beloved by Rebus certainly feature heavily in his collection – “Favourite vinyl album? Probably Let It Bleed by the Stones” – and right now he is listening to a lot of Bert Jansch, the Scottish folk guitarist who died last week. But his tastes also embrace the modern: he has just bought the new album by Wilco and talks enthusiastically about young Scottish bands such as Mogwai, Remember Remember and Errors.
As I make my way back to Waverley Station, I am struck by how well record collecting suits Rankin. Here is a man comfortable with the business as well as the craft of writing, with its public requirements as well as its long hours of solitude. He has achieved worldwide success and yet remains deeply rooted in the city of his youth, a face around town. He even works to a soundtrack – “nothing too intrusive, just background, so that it blocks out the world around you, so it’s just you and the music and the book you’re writing. That’s all there is, the rest of the world has ceased to exist.”