The 'standard biography' of Rankin, a Scot, states that before becoming a full-time novelist he worked as a grape-picker, swineherd, taxman, alcohol researcher, hi-fi journalist, college secretary and punk musician; he was also a Literature tutor at the University of Edinburgh where he retains an involvement with the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. After graduating from the University of Edinburgh he moved to London for four years and then rural France for six while he developed his career as a novelist. He attended Beath High School, Cowdenbeath.
He lives in Edinburgh with his wife Miranda and their two sons Jack and Kit.
Rankin did not set out to be a crime writer. He thought his first novels Knots and Crosses and Hide and Seek were mainstream books, more in keeping with the Scottish traditions of Robert Louis Stevenson and even Muriel Spark (the subject of Rankin's uncompleted Ph.D. thesis), and was disconcerted by their classification as genre fiction. However, he was reassured by Scottish novelist Allan Massie, who tutored Rankin while Massie was writer-in-residence at the University of Edinburgh, querying who would want to be a dry academic writer when "they could be John Buchan?"
Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels are mainly set in Edinburgh, and are major contributions to the Tartan Noir genre. Ten of the novels were televised on ITV, starring John Hannah as Rebus in Series 1 & 2 with Ken Stott taking on the role for Series 3-5.
In 2009, he donated the short story Fieldwork to Oxfam's 'Ox-Tales' project, four collections of UK stories written by 38 authors. Rankin's story was published in the 'Earth' collection.Rankin stated on Radio Five Live that he would soon start work on a five- or six-issue run on the comic book Hellblazer, although the story may be turned into a standalone graphic novel instead. The Vertigo Comics panel at WonderCon 2009 confirmed that the story would be published as a graphic novel called Dark Entries, the second release from the company's new Vertigo Crime imprint.
He is a regular contributor to the BBC Two arts programme Newsnight Review. His 3-part documentary series on the subject of evil was broadcast on Channel 4 in December 2002. In 2005 he presented a 30-minute documentary on BBC 4 called Rankin on the Staircase in which he investigated the relationship between real-life cases and crime fiction, loosely based on the Michael Peterson murder case as documented in Jean-Xavier Lestrade's documentary series Death on the Staircase. The same year he collaborated with folk musician Jackie Leven on the album Jackie Leven Said.
In 2007, Rankin appeared in programmes for BBC Four exploring the origins of his alter-ego character, John Rebus. Titled "Ian Rankin's Hidden Edinburgh" and "Ian Rankin Investigates Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde," Rankin looks at the origins of the character and the events that led to his creation.
In the TV show No Reservations he takes a trip through Edinburgh with writer/cook Anthony Bourdain.
Rankin has been elected as a Hawthornden Fellow and won the Chandler-Fulbright Award. He has also won two Crime Writers' Association (CWA) Dagger prizes for short stories and in 1997 the CWA Macallan Gold Dagger for Fiction for Black and Blue (which was also short-listed for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for best novel). He won the Edgar in 2004 for Resurrection Men. In 2005 he was awarded the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger to mark a lifetime's achievement in crime writing. In 2008 he won the ITV3 Crime Thriller Award for Author of the Year, for Exit Music.
He has honorary doctorates from the University of Edinburgh, the University of Abertay Dundee, the University of St Andrews and, in 2005, from the University of Hull. In June 2002 he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the Golden Jubilee Queen's Birthday Honours List for services to literature.
Rankin's novel Exit Music has been shortlisted for Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year Award 2009.