What is this writer showing you? (Ian Rankin)

This is from “Standing in Another Man’s Grave” by Ian Rankin. Rebus is late for a meeting with his boss, Cowan. As you read this, think about the tiny details. What are they telling you? What is the dialogue telling you?

He shook himself free of his overcoat and let it drip across the floor of the office to the hook on the far wall.

“Thanks for taking the trouble,” Cowan said.

“Apologies, Danny.”

“Daniel,” Cowan corrected him.

“Sorry, Dan.”

Cowan was seated on one of the desks, his legs not quite reaching the floor and exposing a pair of red paisley-pattern socks above gleaming black leather shoes. He kept polish and brushes in the bottom drawer of his desk. Rebus knew this because he’d opened the drawer one day when Cowan was out of the room, having already checked the two drawers above it.

Firstly, what is Rebus’s attitude towards his boss here? He drips his coat across his boss’s floor, he deliberately calls him the wrong name, and he’s checked the guy’s desk drawers when he’s not around.

It’s not that Rebus is sneaky or insubordinate. He’s been around a long time and likes to know exactly what he’s up against, whether his current boss is going to back him up or make life difficult. Would you agree that he has little respect for Cowan at this point?

More importantly, think about POV here. We are certainly getting Rebus’s world view about a lot of things, and not just his boss. He’s not into groveling, and even though later in this chapter, he acknowledges that Cowan is having problems being stuck down in Cold Cases, because Rebus also talks about his own “tingle” in response to an interesting cold case, he has even less respect for Cowan’s dismissal of potential cases and new input.

Finally, we have a bit of the author’s input here, too, because although Rebus might have noted the socks and shoes (and has indeed noted the polishing gear), it’s really Rankin who is adding to Rebus’s scorn of Cowan’s socks and shoes, and that works because Rankin gets so far inside his character’s head that you’d be hard put to see where one stops and the other starts. I think this is a great example of tiny details that tell us so much about character relationships. It’s worth you examining lots of stories in detail like this to see how detail enhances character.

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  1. Thanks for your poem, Scarlet, but the filter deleted it. It’s not really the place to post poetry! Have you thought about having your own poetry blog or sending to magazines and poetry websites? there are lots of opportunities out there. But when you post on someone else’s blog you are technically publishing and that will restrict you from entering competitions and from submitting to some magazines as they only want new work (unpublished). Just letting you know.

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