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Standing in Another Man’s Grave with a Gun Machine: Warren Ellis and Ian Rankin In Conversation

Ian Rankin has called Warren Ellis’s GUN MACHINE “hellish fun.” Warren Ellis has called Ian Rankin’s  STANDING IN ANOTHER MAN’S GRAVE “a magnificent read.” Figuring the Rankin and Ellis might have a thing or two to say to one another, we put the two in touch and watched the fireworks ensue. Their conversation follows…

Warren Ellis: In STANDING IN ANOTHER MAN’S GRAVE, you make returning to John Rebus look like putting on a comfortable old suit, but I wonder if it was. Was there ever a point where you assumed you’d never talk to Rebus again? Or were you waiting for the right story with which to go and see him again?

Ian Rankin: I retired Rebus because the real world demanded it. At that time (2006-7) detectives in Scotland had to retire at 60, and that’s how old I reckoned he was. But I knew that given the chance he would apply to work as a civilian in Edinburgh’s Cold Case unit. It really exists and is staffed by retired detectives. So when I got a notion for a story that involved a cold case…

Now let me ask you something, Warren: as a novelist, I found it hard the one time I wrote a graphic novel. I think authors of graphic novels work harder than novelists, who have all the time and words in the world. How different is it, approaching a novel to a graphic novel? What are the pros and cons of each?

Ellis: Writing a novel, for me, is always having to learn again when to stop describing.  You have to be so blunt and specific, for an artist, to achieve the image and narrative step you’re looking for, and doing that in prose is dull and thudding and takes away the possibility of the image growing and breathing in the reader’s head.  It’s like that art trick where someone draws three lines and a dot but yet everyone can see a face in it.  Not the same face, sure, because no-one sees everything the same way, but definitely a face.  But if you drew that face in detail, many of your readers would say, “huh, I didn’t think they looked like that,” and they’re kicked out of the book.  It’s that specific effect of evocation I have to try and find again.

The pros of writing a novel are about having space and time.  Graphic novels are limited containers of information, especially so in the amount of information one can radiate off a page, and books aren’t.  But there’s an atmosphere you can conjure in six words of text and a simple drawing that books simply can’t capture.  Comics are a hybrid form: they are semiotics and slogans and theatre and iconography and a dozen other things.  Like all hybrids, they have some weird weaknesses, and there are workings and effects in the prose novel that the graphic novel can’t really approach. But there are things in the graphic novel that the prose book simply cannot do.  They are pure visual narrative. Continue reading “Standing in Another Man’s Grave with a Gun Machine: Warren Ellis and Ian Rankin In Conversation”

A Sincere Endeavor: Dedicating BLACK LIGHT to Warrant’s Jani Lane

There’s bad magic and good magic.

Good magic is when you finally manage to quit smoking and something cool happens to you the same week—like winning twenty bucks on a lottery ticket.  Bad magic is when someone quotes your latest poem in a movie about clumsy people, then you fall into an open sewer and die.  Someone, somewhere, said comedy was a little like that.  I think it might have been Mel Brooks.  Life is like that, too.  Cool and cruel.  Strange and simple.  Full of lessons that hammer home important truths and oozing with evil shit that just doesn’t make any sense at all.  And sometimes it gets even stranger.

Case in Point:

Earlier this year, I wrote a book called BLACK LIGHT in collaboration with  a couple of swell guys named Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan.  It’s about a supernatural private eye named Buck Carlsbad who vomits up ghosts.  (Trust me, it’s cool.)  When “the boys” and I were first brainstorming Buck’s adventures, the impetus was always on making things as interesting and original as possible, within the framework of a traditional thriller/ghost story.  Old chestnuts jazzed up with a few new bells and whistles.  I’m a big fan of eighties glam metal.  Patrick used to live down the street from Don Dokken.  They say write what you know, yes?  It seemed like a natural idea to make our hero a relic of the headbanger decade, an ancient walkman filled with killer tunes attached to his waist and his head lodged firmly in the past.  It seemed even cooler to give Buck a poltergeist sidekick who would give him constant shit about his “lousy taste” in music.  We decided in our further infinite wisdom that Buck’s constant plight would be summed up in a particularly popular tune from the era, entitled “Down Boys.”

It was the luck of the draw, really.  I’d been on a bit of a Warrant kick during the writing of BLACK LIGHT, though none of us had much cared for the band back in the actual day.  They were the ‘second wave’ of mega-hyped, overproduced MTV hairspray rockers who floated in on the heels of groundbreakers like AC/DC, Judas Priest, Motley Crue and Van Halen, and not many people in the “hardcore” crowd took them very seriously.  Even I have deeper obsessions, and Patrick and Marcus tend to have more “serious” music on their minds most of the time.


“Down Boys” fit the condition of Buck Carlsbad.

It worked for him.

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My Father’s Coat

A short time ago I got a call out of the blue asking me if I’d like to appear in a short film alongside William McIlvanney – aka The Godfather of Tartan Noir. There was no way I was turning down the chance to meet the author of Laidlaw.

The final cut of Edinburgh film-maker Pete Martin’s work features the Scottish musician James Grant’s tune, My Father’s Coat, with McIlvanney playing the father, and myself, playing his son.

It’s a haunting tune – very noir – so Martin’s slickly atmospheric film, and his choice of cast, seems to fit the bill perfectly.

Shot on location in Glasgow, at the city’s Necropolis and Barras Market, there’s a real flavour of the setting for McIlvanney’s award-winning novels; if you look carefully you may even spot one or two of the characters he so deftly populates his work with.

For me, the chance to rub shoulders with a literary genius and – no pun intended – ride his coat-tails for a little while was an experience to savour. And yes, The Godfather did sign my well-thumbed copy of Laidlaw.

The film will be premiered in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, at the city’s Filmhouse Theatre on October 22, where the cast and crew will be answering questions from the audience after the screening. I’ll post details of how to get tickets on my website:

Tony Black was born in Australia and grew up in Scotland and Ireland. He is an award-winning journalist and author of the Gus Dury series of crime novels. A second series, featuring DI Rob Brennan began with Truth Lies Bleeding in January 2011. Visit his webiste at

Fearful Joys

German Reichstag in BerlinLooking at the Recently Played smartlist in iTunes, I can tell there’s a song that’s had massively more airplay in my world than any other over the last couple of months. That doesn’t surprise me. I’ve put it on at random points during the day. I’ve had it on repeat in the background while I’ve worked at a scene. I’ve sneakily put it on several times while people have been over for dinner, and listened to it again after they’ve gone, while tidying up kitchen. The song is Ich Bin Ich, by Rosenstolz.

And the strange thing is that I have absolutely no clue what it is about.

One of the reasons I like listening to European pop (apart from the songwriters being unafraid of outmoded concepts like ‘melody’) is that if I leave my mind off the hook it’s merely a pleasant sound; with lyrics in English the words pick at me and distract me from working. I listen to a bit of French pop too — I like it, so screw you — and with those songs I can generally make some sense of the words, if I concentrate. Rosenstolz are from Austria. With German, I’m totally lost. It might just as well be in Aramaic, or Welsh, or machine code.

Continue reading “Fearful Joys”

What’s the score . . .

InsideThe theme from The Persuaders. My favourite John Barry pick. Without a doubt. I mean, obviously his arrangement for the Monty Norman 007 theme in Dr No, and then all the subsequent Bonds – the Conneriad – From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, and Diamonds Are Forever. But there was something about the theme to The Persuaders that really just got me – that intriguing split-screen title sequence juxtaposing the early lives of Danny Wilde and Lord Brett Sinclair. I haven’t seen it in (cough) forty years, but it’s alive in my mind right now, and is taking me back . . . back . . . the exciting visuals and that pounding theme . . .

The gift of sound and vision.

The death of John Barry recently sees the passing of one of the great practitioners of a peculiarly modern art form – the composition of music for film. Ever since the days of the nickelodeon, stories told with moving pictures have had music accompanying them. They don’t necessarily need it, of course, as shown very effectively by Hitchcock in The Birds, and more recently by Michael Haneke in such works as Hidden and The White Ribbon. But there’s a certain austerity here that, let’s face it, we mightn’t want to see replicated everywhere. Because a good movie score provides colour and emotional commentary. And what a truly great score does is become an integral part of the movie itself. Works its way into the very fabric and texture of it. Such a score makes the movie it accompanies incomplete – unimaginable without it.

Try to imagine, for example, Vertigo without Bernard Herrmann’s mesmerizing score. This music doesn’t just tell us what to think, it is an objective correlative of what we think – of what we feel and experience at a visceral level when we are watching the movie. Its tones and moods are inextricable from the movie’s layers of emotion, from its colour and depth, from its narrative complexity. In the same way, try to imagine Chinatown without Jerry Goldsmith’s score. To Kill a Mockingbird without Elmer Berstein’s score. The Godfather and Amarcord without Nino Rota. 1970s paranoia without David Shire and Michael Small.

Bond without Barry. Everyone can make their own list.

Sometimes a score can even give a fairly ordinary film a bit of a lift. I watched State of Grace on TV late one night recently, Phil Joanou’s 1990 westies gangster flick. It’s pretty good and has a great cast, but Ennio Morricone’s achingly beautiful score raises the bar considerably and infuses the movie’s themes of regret and lost youth with a poignancy that they might not otherwise have achieved.

An alternative to the original score is the mixtape approach, where a movie co-opts existing music, usually classical, and redefines it with new imagery (and occasionally threatens to spoil it, through overkill, as is the case with the adagietto from Mahler’s 5th used in Visconti’s Death in Venice). The master of this form was surely Stanley Kubrick, who had an uncanny ability to pair existing music with whatever personal vision he was committing to screen at the time. In this regard, my own favourite of his is Barry Lyndon, a film in which music and imagery, lighting and colour, are held in such perfect balance that you are literally transported to a previous century. Okay, not literally. But if feels that way.

Continue reading “What’s the score . . .”

Music to Die For

Sound compo: amplifier and microphone Remember that Monty Python sketch? Michael Palin exclaiming that although he was an accountant he really always wanted to be a lumberjack? Well, when I was young I wanted to be an accountant. Or, rather, an accountant is what I thought I would be. But in my dreams I was front man in a great pop or rock group. I’d started buying records at the age of ten or eleven, and soon thereafter I formed my own band. They were called Kaput (I think), with Ian Kaput on lead vocals, Blue Lightning on guitar, and Zed “Killer” Macintosh on bass. Alas, the band existed only inside my head and on paper. I would write their lyrics, plan their tours, script their media interviews, and design their record sleeves. Then there was the weekly top-ten singles and album chart, which necessitated dreaming up nine other bands. I was doing what every writer does: creating a parallel universe where things would work out pretty much as I wanted them to. As I got older, Ian Kaput formed a new band, the Amoebas. He no longer sang three-minute hits but had gone “prog,” and the band did album-length “suites” with titles such as “Continuous Repercussions.”

So far, so sad.

In time, I put away Ian Kaput and the Amoebas. At university, I joined a new-wave band called the Dancing Pigs. We lasted six months. After university, I worked on a music magazine in London for a short while. Once I’d built up my record collection and put together a decent system to play it on, I quit and went full-time as a writer. I’d already written the first Rebus novel, where Rebus tends to listen to jazz—stuff I reckoned loner existential cops might stroke their chins to on long dark nights. But another author, John Harvey, was writing gritty books about Nottingham and his cop was called Resnick. Resnick listened to jazz. To put some clear blue water between our two characters, I handed my record collection over to Rebus. Soon after, I even started stealing album and song titles for my books—Let It Bleed (the Rolling Stones), The Hanging Garden (the Cure), Dead Souls (Joy Division), The Falls (the Mutton Birds). Musicians liked the references in the books. One, Jackie Leven, got in touch and we worked together on a project called “Jackie Leven Said,” with which we toured. There was even a CD—for a few weeks I could walk into HMV and see me and Jackie on the racks.  REM asked if I could hook up with them for dinner. Pete Townshend sends occasional e-mails when I mention his work in my novels. Robert Smith liked what I did with The Hanging Garden. I’ve done a gig in New York with Aidan Moffat, and written lyrics for the second album by Saint Jude’s Infirmary. I got to meet Randy Newman backstage, and he told me I’d introduced him to Irn-Bru.

I’m not alone here. Plenty of other crime writers would rather have been musicians—I know because we talk about it whenever we get together, and lots of us reference music in our books. If we had the talent, maybe we could even form a band, but I’ve heard myself sing and it’s not pretty. So I’m happy enough indulging my fantasies on paper, just like always. Because in Black and Blue I needed one of the biggest bands in the world to be fronting a Greenpeace festival in Scotland. I could have chosen U2 or REM or the Stones. I chose the Dancing Pigs, naturally. That’s my lumberjack moment right there. . . .

Ian Rankin is a #1 international bestselling author. Winner of an Edgar Award and the recipient of a Gold Dagger for fiction and the Chandler-Fulbright Award, he lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, with his wife and their two sons. Learn more at and be sure to download the Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh app for your iPhone or iPad.