John Rebus

Detective Inspector John Rebus is the protagonist in the Inspector Rebus series of detective novels by the Scottish writer Ian Rankin, ten of which have so far been televised as Rebus. The novels are mostly set in and around Edinburgh. Rebus has been portrayed by John Hannah and Ken Stott for Television, with Ron Donachie playing the character for the BBC Radio dramatisations.

John Rebus
First appearanceKnots and Crosses
Created byIan Rankin
Portrayed byAlexander Morton (BBC radio)
John Hannah (TV)
Ken Stott (TV)
Ron Donachie (BBC radio)
Charles Lawson (stage)
TitleDetective Sergeant/Detective Inspector
OccupationPolice Officer
FamilyMichael Rebus (brother)
SpouseRhona (divorced)
ChildrenSamantha Rebus (daughter)


In the books

According to Ian Rankin, John Rebus was born in 1947 and grew up in a pre-fabricated house in Craigmead Terrace, Cardenden, Fife (Rankin's home town),[1][2] the son of a stage hypnotist. His grandfather was an immigrant from Poland. He grew up in a terraced house along with his brother, Michael.

He left school at the age of fifteen and joined the Army, one of the few mainstream career options open to young men of the area, the others being coal-mining or working at Rosyth Dockyard, whilst his brother followed in their father's footsteps. After serving in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, he applied to undergo selection for the SAS. After passing selection – where Rebus excelled – he and a colleague were selected for further training for a secretive elite programme, training which eventually prompted Rebus to resign from the SAS and which spurred a nervous breakdown. Following lobbying from the Army, Rebus was given a position with Lothian and Borders Police in order to recover from the trauma. He went to Summerhall as a detective constable in November 1982.[3] In many of his books Rebus works from the St Leonard's Police Station in Edinburgh.[4]

Ian Rankin prefers to leave the physical appearance of his characters to the reader's imagination, although when Rebus is first introduced in Knots and Crosses, we learn that he has brown hair and green eyes, like his brother. His rough lifestyle means that his clothes are often less than immaculate. He has been severely burned, was in a car crash and suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in retirement.[2]

Rebus was raised a Protestant but was indifferent like his father; his mother was a "religious woman" but died young. He went to church every Sunday (Presbyterian or Calvinist guilt?) with his mother, until when he was 12 or 13 she said he could stay home with his father, which he did. After killing a young drug dealer, he considers going to a church in Mayfield with a minister "not overly keen on prying into one’s affairs".[5] He had nothing against Catholics, though mistrusting the "shrine" mentality. He works for a bigot, Chief Inspector Lauderdale, who he winds up whenever he can and calls him "the Clockwork Orangeman" behind his back.[6] His best pre-school playmate had been Miles Skelly a Catholic - until they went to different schools, his first lesson in "the divide". [7] He once said "I don't believe in heaven", although he has also confessed to a priest.[2]

He was married, but divorced sometime in the 1980s. His ex-wife, Rhona, and his daughter, Samantha, appear frequently in the novels. Since the series takes place in real time, Samantha grows from a child to a young woman.

In Knots and Crosses, Rebus is a Detective Sergeant, but is promoted to Detective Inspector sometime before the start of Hide and Seek, four years later. He has not been promoted since, although he has turned down a promotion on at least one occasion. His advancing years and retirement mean that he is unlikely to receive another chance.

Rebus is for the most part apolitical – in Strip Jack it is revealed that he has only voted three times in his adult life, once for Labour, once for the Conservatives and once for the SNP.[2] His general ambivalence towards politics is tempered by a dislike of sectarianism, resulting from his experiences as a soldier in Northern Ireland. He also reveals that he abstained on the Scottish devolution referendum in 1979 with suggested occasional guilt pangs when he later befriends an independence advocate. He voted against independence in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.[2] Many plots feature nascent political independence or devolution as backdrop with reference and settings including Scottish parliament.


Rebus can be said to belong to a long tradition of paternal Scottish hard men. A natural leader whose gruff exterior and fierce will to succeed in his field belies a benevolent nature. The character owes as much to the likes of Jock Stein and Bill Shankly as it does to a more obvious relation, Jim Taggart. The post-war upbringing on a Scottish housing scheme amidst the decline of heavy industry, a fondness for alcohol, an identification with those who struggle against adversity, a distrust of authority, stubbornness[4] and an intimidating personal manner. He sees things in black and white and classifies people as either good or bad. For example in Dead Souls he outs a convicted paedophile who has been released after serving time and is trying to reform. The paedophile dies and Rebus shows little remorse.[2] He has a strong love for books and music, owns an extensive record collection and drives a Saab 900. Rebus is a smoker and heavy drinker and often orders a pint of beer (generally IPA) and a whisky. The traits that keep him strong are also the traits that drive those closest to him away. It is the pervasive image of Rebus as the noble loner that wins the sympathy of readers.

Rebus does have a string of romantic liaisons, but apart from his marriage to Rhona none last very long.[2] He has been linked with DI Gill Templer. He has a strong platonic relationship with his understudy and protégée, Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke. His longest relationship has been with Patience Aitken which spanned several novels. Either his relationships are improper and unsuitable – with women personally linked to the cases Rebus is working on, or else they find that Rebus is 'married' to his job, and cannot be fully committed to a relationship.

In an Independent on Sunday interview Rankin said that he drew "some of his inspiration" for the character from the “sixth Stone”, Ian Stewart.[8] Three of the Inspector Rebus novels are named after Stones albums: Black and Blue, Let It Bleed and Beggars Banquet.[9]


In a 2007 interview with BBC Radio Scotland, Rankin corrected his interviewer in the description of Exit Music as not the last Rebus novel, but Rebus's retirement novel. Rankin expects to revisit the Edinburgh he created in fiction, with Clarke as his central police officer character. In the same interview, Rankin suggests several reasons for his creation's popularity, despite the policeman's unlikeability. First, Rebus is an outsider, and many people can feel as though they do not fit in as well as they think they should; secondly, Rebus is a curmudgeon, and there is a pleasure in such characters; and finally, he does not just solve cases, he also has the intention of doing some greater good as well.

On the 13 December 2009 edition of the BBC Radio Scotland programme Shereen, Rankin admitted that he knows where Rebus is in retirement: working on cold cases at police headquarters as a civilian. Rankin said it was possible that his new character, Inspector Fox, may either bump into Rebus or end up on an investigation that has something to do with a skeleton in Rebus's closet. However, including Rebus in a novel currently would mean that Scottish Television would have the right to produce the novel, so Rankin admitted that he might hold off on that plot for some time.

In 2012, Rebus returned in Standing in Another Man's Grave, where he is indeed working for the police, as a civilian, on cold cases. Rebus also has a chance to rejoin the police as retirement age has been increased. According to Ian Rankin, rights have reverted to him regarding the Rebus character.

In 2017 Rankin said initially he aged Rebus in real time but since retirement he has slowed down Rebus aging. Rebus was 40 in the first book "Knots and Crosses" (1987) and should, therefore, be 70 in 2017; but, in Rankin's mind, Rebus is still in his mid-60s.[2]

Radio and TV series


Plans were afoot in the late 1980s and early '90s to bring Rebus to television in an adaptation of Knots and Crosses with Leslie Grantham in the lead but this came to nothing. Ian Rankin believes that it was likely they would have made Rebus English or relocated the entire story to London.

Rankin has revealed the BBC were also keen to cast Robbie Coltrane as Rebus in a mooted adaptation of the series in the 1990s. Rankin smiled a bit, imagining flashbacks to Rebus's SAS training with Private Robbie Coltrane running over the assault course! [10]

In the Rebus television adaptations he was played by John Hannah in the first series, a casting decision in which Hannah felt he was forced. It was his production company behind the series and his original suggestion was Peter Mullan. However, he claimed the corporation would not commission a relatively unknown actor. In the later series, following Hannah and his production team's exit, the role was taken over by Ken Stott.

A lot of Rebus's character foibles are glossed over in the adaptations, for example his large LP collection and the frequent popular music references and thoughts that Ian Rankin weaves into the stories. However, Rebus' reliance on alcohol is evident and he is often seen drinking in the Oxford Bar. Also, in the television series Rebus is portrayed as being a supporter of Hibernian (like Siobhan Clarke). This is not found in Ian Rankin's books, he having stated outside the books that Rebus is a Raith Rovers supporter.[11] Rebus's Fife accent is softened as well; in the novel Tooth and Nail, London Metropolitan Police colleagues find it difficult to understand his speech.

BBC Radio

Alexander Morton played Rebus in a 1999 BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Let It Bleed.

Ron Donachie starred as Rebus in BBC Radio 4's dramatizations of The Falls (2008),[12] Resurrection Men (2008),[13] Strip Jack (2010),[14] The Black Book (2012),[15] Black and Blue (2013)[16] and "Rebus Set in Darkness" (2014).[17]

BBC Radio has also broadcast abridged readings of Ian Rankin's "Rebus" novels, including Let It Bleed read by Alexander Morton, Death Is Not the End read by Douglas Henshall and Beggar's Banquet read by James MacPherson.

See also


  • Cabell, Craig (2010). Ian Rankin and Inspector Rebus. London: Metro Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84454-866-8.
  1. BBC Four documentary, "Ian Rankin's Hidden Edinburgh". Repeated on BBC Two, 10 August 2008
  2. McGinty, Stephen2017-03-19. "Rebus not ready for the final chapter". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 19 March 2017.
  3. Saints of the Shadow Bible: Day 7 & Day 16, pages 82,192
  4. Lanchester, John (19 April 2000). "Secrets and lies: the impossible world of DI John Rebus". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 19 March 2017.
  5. Sunday (short story)
  6. Auld Lang Syne (short story)
  7. Seeing Things (short story)
  8. Rebus and the rejected Rolling Stone
  9. Archived 13 May 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  10. Cabell 2010, p. 186.
  11. Donaldson, Mark (11 April 2010). "Ian Rankin : Stretching the Imagination". The Active Nation Scottish Cup Semi-Final Official Programme – Raith Rovers v Dundee United. Glasgow: The Scottish Football Association. pp. 34–5.
  12. BBC Radio 4 programme page
  13. BBC Radio 4 programme page
  14. BBC Radio 4 programme page
  15. BBC Radio 4 programme page
  16. BBC Radio 4 programme page
  17. BBC Radio 4 programme page
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