‘Hit & Run’ by Doug Johnstone

Hit-and-run

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 263 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Last year I thoroughly enjoyed Doug Johnstone’s Smokeheads, a high-octane thriller cum black comedy set on the Scottish isle of Islay. His new one, Hit & Run — published last month — is set in Edinburgh and delivers the same kind of fast-paced energy but feels more “real” and is certainly less violent.

Trainee crime reporter in hit and run accident

In the opening chapter, Billy Blackmore, a trainee crime reporter on the local newspaper, is driving home in the early hours of the morning, accompanied by his older brother, Charlie, and his girlfriend, Zoe. All three have been to a party and are tanked up on booze and pills.

When Billy hits something on the road, he stops the car to see what it might be. It turns out to be a well-dressed man — and he’s dead. In a split second, the trio must decide what to do: call the authorities and face the consequences of being drunk behind the wheel, or move the body into a nearby copse and drive off as if nothing has happened?

Charlie, who is a doctor and has much to lose, convinces Billy to choose the latter. But this one decision turns Billy’s life upside down. Not only does he have to live with the guilt, he suddenly finds himself in the thick of the story, when he has to cover it for the local newspaper the next day.

Edinburgh crime lord found dead

When the body turns out to be Frank Whitehouse, Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord, Billy fears for his life. But propped up on uppers, downers and painkillers — he suffered a serious knock to his head during the accident — he manages to get on with the job of reporting the crime and its aftermath.

Out on the beat, mostly under the guidance of his lovely boss, Rose, a middle-aged reporter, he garners information and “colour” about the case the old-fashioned way — before it turns up on Twitter and the internet.

And while the story is largely a dark psychological thriller in which things go from bad to worse for poor old guilt-plagued Billy, it’s also a terrific portrait of traditional print journalism in which legwork and cultivating sources of information reaps rewards.

Missing: a dog called Rebus

It’s also incredibly evocative of Edinburgh, so much so that the city feels like an extra character in the book, particularly the Salisbury Crags, which are a brooding presence throughout. There’s even a nod to Edinburgh-based crime author Ian Rankin — Frank Whitehouse has a dog called Rebus, which has gone missing.

The writing is taut and sparse, the dialogue punchy and realistic, and the narrative runs along at such a cracking pace I read it in one sitting.

Hit & Run has a dark noirish feel to it — helped in part by copious drug use, some sex (in a toilet) and a smattering of violence — but it’s not a gratuitous read. In fact, it’s quite restrained — and I think the book is the better for it, because it feels like an authentic portrayal of a young man going slightly off the rails. More please.

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