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Ian Rankin

Beggars Banquet


I started off life as a short story writer. Actually, that’s not strictly true. I started as a comic-book writer, drawing stick-men cartoons with speech bubbles. I was about seven or eight, and I’d fold sheets of plain paper until I had a little booklet. Then I’d draw my stick-men. They would appear in strips about football, war, and outer space… until it was pointed out to me that I couldn’t really draw. A potentially glorious career nipped in the bud. It didn’t really bother me. By now I was ten or eleven and starting to listen to music. But being an obsessive sort of kid, it wasn’t enough just to listen – same as I’d never just been happy as a reader of comics. I did what any sensible person would do – started a band. Problem was, none of my friends shared my interest. It didn’t help that I couldn’t read music or play an instrument. I didn’t need to: the music could be stored in my head, the lyrics written down. So I invented a ‘bubblegum’ pop group called The Amoebas, whose roster included Ian Kaput (vocals), Zed ‘Killer’ Macintosh (bass) and Blue Lightning (guitar). I recall the drummer had a double-barrelled name, but forget what it was. By writing lyrics for this band, I found myself writing poetry – doggerel, admittedly, but poetry all the same, in that the lyrics scanned and had a rhyme scheme. It wasn’t such a leap, therefore, to write my first ‘proper’ poem at around the age of sixteen. The Amoebas were still around then, incidentally, but had shifted from pop to progressive rock.

The thing about my poems was, they told stories. They were about people going to places and the consequences of their actions. I think that’s why I started writing short stories. I wrote several while still at school, aided by an English teacher called Mr Gillespie, who seemed to think I had ‘something’. At that time, in our English class we were given topics and had to construct a weekly short story. In one instance, Mr Gillespie gave us the phrase ‘Dark they were and golden-eyed’. The rest was up to us. My contribution concerned worried parents searching a busy squat for their drug-addict son. A lot of my stories were in this – ahem – vein. At home, I wrote about kids running away from their small-town existences, only to end up committing suicide in London. One longer story took place in my own school, where a poster of Mick Jagger took on devilish powers and persuaded the kids to go on a rampage. (Influenced by Lord of the Flies? Maybe more than a smidge…)

At university, I wrote poems and short stories both. My first ‘proper’ short story, about a shipyard closure, came second in a national competition. My next, based on a real family event, won another prize. The first story of mine to appear in a collection was ‘An Afternoon’. It was about a seasoned copper patrolling a Hibs football match. (It wasn’t good enough for the collection you’re about to read, so don’t bother looking.)

The stories collected here span a decade or more. Some first appeared on radio, others in American magazines. They comprise my first short story collection since 1992’s A Good Hanging. Not all of them are Rebus stories. There’s a good reason for this: I tend to write short stories in between books, as a way of getting the good Inspector out of my system for a while. This was certainly true of ‘A Deep Hole’, featured here and one of the collection’s most successful stories, in that it won a Dagger for Best Story of the Year, and was also shortlisted for the prestigious Anthony award. The really curious thing about ‘A Deep Hole’ is that it started life set entirely in Edinburgh. Then an editor called and asked if I had anything set in London for a book he was compiling. I tweaked ‘A Deep Hole’ and sent it off. Not a bad move, as it turned out. Another story here, ‘Herbert in Motion’, also won a Dagger for Best Short Story. Its genesis was an off-hand comment by my partner about how government ministers in Whitehall could borrow works of art from various galleries and museums. This is the beauty of the short story: all you need is a single good idea. No convolutions or sub-plots. Well, not many. Not as many as in a novel, certainly. Stories are also good ways of experimenting with narrative voice, structure and methods of economy. I’ve managed to whittle stories down from 800 words to 200 – a struggle, but useful in that I came to learn just how much it is possible to leave out. There’s no place for fat on a story: it has to be lean and fit. ‘Glimmer’ started life as a novella, until I realised I was indulging myself. Whittling away, I found the real story peering out at me. It’s still an indulgence, giving me a chance to create a mythology around one of my favourite Rolling Stones songs, but now it’s as lean as it is mean.

A couple of the stories here – ‘The Confession’ and ‘The Hanged Man’ – started life as pieces for radio. Another, ‘Principles of Accounts’, began as a treatment for a TV drama which never came to be. Strangest of all, perhaps, is ‘The Only True Comedian’, which began as a monologue for radio. Eventually, changed out of all recognition and renamed ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’, it appeared as a short TV drama as part of Scottish Television’s ‘ Newfoundland ’ series. I think I was credited as co-writer, but when I sat down to watch the finished product, I don’t think I heard more than two lines which I’d written. The rest had been altered to suit the medium. It seemed to work: the actor picked up an award for his performance. But all told, I was much happier with my short story.

I like short stories. I enjoy reading other people’s, as well as writing them myself. For a time, I mistakenly thought it might even be possible to make a living as a short story writer. After all, in this jump-cut, fast-paced, bite-sized urban world, short stories offer convenience – you can start and finish one on a short bus ride or train journey. You can read one in your lunch break. It might even be possible to write one in your lunch break. Look around you. The ideas are out there. Sometimes they’re close enough to touch.

In closing, and before you begin I should thank my editor for this collection, Jon Wood. The title Beggars Banquet was his idea. A great Stones album. I hope you enjoy tucking into these morsels.

Ian Rankin



Blame it on patience.

Patience, coincidence, or fate. Whatever, Grace Gallagher came downstairs that morning and found herself sitting at the dining table with a cup of strong brown tea (there was just enough milk in the fridge for one other cup), staring at the pack of cards. She sucked cigarette smoke into her lungs, feeling her heart beat the faster for it. This cigarette she enjoyed. George did not allow her to smoke in his presence, and in his presence she was for the best part of each and every day. The smoke upset him, he said. It tasted his mouth, so that food took on a funny flavour. It irritated his nostrils, made him sneeze and cough. Made him giddy. George had written the book on hypochondria.

So the house became a no-smoking zone when George was up and about. Which was precisely why Grace relished this small moment by herself, a moment lasting from seven fifteen until seven forty-five. For the forty years of their married life, Grace had always managed to wake up thirty clear minutes before her husband. She would sit at the table with a cigarette and tea until his feet forced a creak from the bedroom floorboard on his side of the bed. That floorboard had creaked from the day they’d moved into 26 Gillan Drive, thirty-odd years ago. George had promised to fix it; now he wasn’t even fit to fix himself tea and toast.

Grace finished the cigarette and stared at the pack of cards. They’d played whist and rummy the previous evening, playing for stakes of a penny a game. And she’d lost as usual. George hated losing, defeat bringing on a sulk which could last the whole of the following day, so to make her life a little easier Grace now allowed him to win, purposely throwing away useful cards, frittering her trumps. George would sometimes notice and mock her for her stupidity. But more often he just clapped his hands together after another win, his puffy fingers stroking the winnings from the table top.



2011 - 2018