The BBC was obviously delighted to launch its latest crime drama this weekend. Rebus, a reimagining of the best-selling crime novels of Sir Ian Rankin, was given a prime Saturday evening slot for its first episode and will be broadcast over the next five weeks in the early summer schedule. For the impatient bingers, however, all six episodes are already available on iPlayer.

The new series is low risk for the corporation. The first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, was released in 1987 and its hero, Detective Inspector John Rebus, is now a brand: the twenty-fifth book, Midnight and Blue, is slated for publication in the autumn, each volume routinely sells half a million copies and at one point Rankin’s detective accounted for ten per cent of all crime novel sales in the UK. Rebus has been seen on screen before, STV producing four series between 2000 and 2007, first with John Hannah then Ken Stott in the lead role. For the BBC, this is as close to a guaranteed winner as you can get.

Crime drama is in any event a reliable genre. The BBC alone has broadcast Blue Lights, The Gone, Kin, Annika, Steeltown Murders, Vigil, Shetland, The Tourist, Murder Is Easy, The Woman In The Wall and Boat Story within the last 12 months: television bosses know what sells and what viewers will watch. For Rebus, therefore, they are in a popular category, with a bankable brand but the promise of a twist of novelty inherent in a ‘reboot’. Win-win-win.

The first episode is a strong effort. Richard Rankin gives a powerful performance as the titular detective, a charismatic but unsettled and troubled man at a career crossroads. He is divorced and his wife has married a wealthy man with whom, we discover, she is having a baby, while his relationship with his daughter Sammy (Mia McKenzie) is warm and loving but hemmed in by awkwardness and masculine Scottish reserve. There is more familial trouble in the shape of his brother Michael, whom he punches to the ground before the first episode is out, and an unsustainable affair with Maggie Blantyre (Michelle Duncan), the wife of his paralysed former boss.

Rankin is impressively sympathetic: he manages to show Rebus as a sharp-tongued, hot-headed drinker, not always possessed of good judgement and equipped with a realistic array of prejudices. When he meets his new partner, English and university-educated Siobhan Clarke (Lucie Shorthouse), their interplay is wary and brittle. Struggling for conversation, she asks Rebus if he voted for independence in the 2014 referendum.

The response is sour, blunt but expressive. “I’m a polissman, ex-army, quiet Jambo. What do you think?” he snaps.

(A “Jambo” is a supporter of Heart of Midlothian, one of Edinburgh’s two premiership football teams. Traditionally Protestant, they are the great rivals of Hibernian, whom DC Clarke, at least in the novels, supports.)

Rebus crackles with a dark, spiky script by Gregory Burke, who made his name with the visceral, hard-edged 2006 play Black Watch for the National Theatre of Scotland. The dialogue is crisp and pacey, and there are shards of pitch-black humour. After visiting a hospitalised gangster with the unfortunate moniker of Jimmy McJagger, Rebus explains to Clarke he is sensitive about his name. “His dad murdered someone for putting Brown Sugar on the jukebox”. There is no smile, which makes it funnier.

This is good television: fine and nuanced performances, clever writing, a strong pace and atmospheric and effective cinematography. But there are questions lurking. The first is why it is a ‘reboot’ of Rankin’s Rebus character rather than a fresh creation. Jill Green, CEO of Eleventh Hour Films, one of the producers, enthused “we are so excited to be bringing a fresh, modern reimagining of Rebus to a wide audience on the BBC”. Richard Rankin spoke of his pride in taking on the portrayal, “a character enjoyed by so many in such a fresh and original adaptation”.

Let’s be clear, though, Rebus is not a dusty figure from the golden age of crime writing. Although he retired as a detective in the 17th novel, Exit Music, in 2007, he has continued his literary life as a civilian in another seven books, with an eighth in the near future. Nor is the STV adaptation ancient history: the episodes starring Ken Stott in particular remain powerful, punchy, involving dramas, well worth revisiting.

Rebooting is, of course, very much au courant. Recently we have seen new interpretations of Shogun, One Day, The Talented Mr Ripley, Mean Girls and Mr and Mrs Smith. The commercial imperative is easily understood: novelty is risk in television and cinema, while a reboot not only has an existing audience but can tap into a warm sense of nostalgia for the original. But a critical evaluation is entitled to argue that it can be creatively lazy. To reboot or reinterpret or revisit old material is in some senses a decision not to make something new.

To justify itself creatively rather than commercially, a reboot must bring something new, some fresh perspective, change of emphasis or difference in style. One Day, for example, used the freedom of Netflix to interpret David Nicholls’s novel over 14 episodes of varying lengths. The ability to have some of the annual encounters between Emma and Dexter last barely 20 minutes, while some stretched to double that, gave it a pace and a syncopated rhythm that the 2011 film could never have offered. Shogun, meanwhile, has retold James Clavell’s story in a more nuanced and even-handed way than the 1980 miniseries, giving much more space and attention to the Japanese characters. The audience can see the shipwrecked English sailor John Blackthorne not just as a protagonist, but also as the unfamiliar outsider, a foreigner lost in a complex culture he cannot penetrate.

It is less easy to see what urgent new message Rebus conveys, or what reflection of contemporary society it provides. By setting it in the present day, the makers have perforce stripped it of the long, loping story of Edinburgh’s evolution that Rankin’s novels capture. Yet it shows little sign so far of engaging intimately with the distinctive shape of Scotland today: the hard-faced, bullying ‘progressivism’, a pervasive appeal to victimhood and a sense of exhaustion in civic institutions.

What it gives us is a troubled, middle-aged detective who dislikes the way the world has evolved. He rails against the intrusion of English people who move to Edinburgh: “They go to the uni and they get a degree and they fall in love with the place. So they stay and they get married and they have kids and they start fucking Instagramming and cycling aboot the place like they’re in Denmark or something.” He is dismissive of graduate entry to the police force: when Clarke is introduced as a product of the detective training course, he observes mordantly “I hear it’s a whole week now”.

And, of course, he has a drinking problem, sitting in a deserted pub in the middle of the afternoon, staring at a pint and a whisky chaser on the table in front of him. This is the sign of a dedicated drinker, and a convincingly Scottish habit too. We see why Rebus drinks: not only is he divorced and engaged in a destructive affair, not only is his relationship with his brother painful and barbed, but there is a sense that he has been brutalised by institutions, first the Parachute Regiment and now the police. So, like any self-(dis)respecting Scotsman, he blunts the trauma with booze.

This leads to the second problem with the new Rebus. Not only does it have little to say that is new, but by picking up Ian Rankin’s broken, dysfunctional detective, it is choosing a very familiar trope.

Tartan noir is a familiar genre now but it began in the 1970s. Its godfather was William McIlvanney, whose 1977 detective novel Laidlaw set out the framework for everything that was to come. Its eponymous hero was a hard-drinking, intuitively brilliant but unpredictable policeman tasked with investigating a brutal sex-related murder.

The setting was contemporary Glasgow, a rough, hard city in industrial and physical decline. Its criminal world, marked by gang violence, was immortalised in the 1930s by H. Kingsley Long’s unsparing and savage novel No Mean City, but there had been a grim and very real revival in the 1960s: There were still pitched battles between rival mobs in cinemas and dance halls, and forever the dreaded flash of the razor and the slash of the infamous “Glasgow smile”. Laidlaw’s first readers were also still living within a decade of the murders of three young women by the anonymous serial killer known as Bible John, who provoked one of the biggest manhunts in Scottish criminal history but was never caught.

Against this backdrop, McIlvanney created a model which would dominate Scottish crime fiction. Laidlaw is a hard man who can go toe to toe with the criminals he confronts, but he lives in a bleak, battered, liminal world in which he must protect society but has no illusions about the nobility of his cause.

“Who thinks the law has anything to do with justice?”, he spits at one point. “It’s what we have because we can’t have justice.”

Allan Massie wrote that “all Scottish crime writing… comes out of Laidlaw”. He compared McIlvanney to Raymond Chandler and Georges Simenon, and hailed him as “the finest Scottish novelist of our time”, Scotland’s Camus. And it’s important to recall the milieu into which McIlvanney was coming. It was only a few years since the BBC had finally brought the curtain down on Dr Finlay’s Casebook after 191 episodes, A.J. Cronin’s reassuring rural stories of a medical practice in fictional Tannochbrae. Scotland’s literary scene still bore the imprint of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, and Dame Muriel Spark, though by then an expatriate in Italy, was still active. McIlvanney was one of a wave of new authors who tore away old stereotypes and assumptions—sometimes an acutely painful business—to show Scotland as a dark, gloomy society in the death throes of industrialisation.

Rankin is absolutely the heir to McIlvanney’s creation. He first met the Laidlaw author at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 1985 when he was still working on the character of Rebus and they became friends; in 2020, five years after McIlvanney’s death, his widow, Siobhan Lynch, presented an incomplete manuscript for another Laidlaw novel, The Dark Remains, to his publisher Canongate, and they in turn asked Rankin to finish the work. It was published under both their names in 2021.

Many authors stand in McIlvanney’s debt: Val McDermid, Denise Mina, Stuart McBride, Lin Anderson and Christopher Brookmyre would all readily acknowledge their place in tartan noir. STV’s long-running Taggart, which began as a miniseries in 1983, could not have been born except in the shadow of Laidlaw.

Looking at the new Rebus, almost half a century after Jack Laidlaw walked the streets of Glasgow, you can see the lineage, and you can see too how Scotland has shaped her detective heroes, or anti-heroes. Richard Rankin’s portrayal is a worthy extension of that tradition, a complex and compelling character supplied with sharp, intelligent banter. But the question which hangs over every reboot still hangs over the new series: what is new about it? So far from offering a fresh perspective, Rebus is deeply conventional. Good drama is always welcome, but it’s hard to imagine it would have been commissioned without the familiar brand of Scotland’s most famous detective.

Image: Dmitry B

Eliot Wilson

Eliot Wilson is policy editor of Culturall. A writer and strategic adviser, he is co-founder of Pivot Point Group, and is also a columnist for The Daily Telegraph and City AM. He was previously a clerk in the House of Commons.