Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Doug Johnstone, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘The Jump’ by Doug Johnstone

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 288 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In recent years, Scottish writer Doug Johnstone has become my go-to author for fast-paced psychological thrillers. I’ve read Smokeheads (2011)Hit & Run (2012) and Gone Again (2013) — all reviewed here — and he even did his Triple Choice Tuesday for me back in 2011. Somehow I missed out on last year’s The Dead Beat — probably because it came out while I was in the throes of part-time study — but this year I made sure not to miss his latest novel, The Jump, which was published in the UK by Faber & Faber last week.

A suicide bridge

The story plays out in the shadow of the Forth Road Bridge, a suspension bridge that spans the Firth of Forth in Scotland. It was from this structure that Ellie’s 15-year-old son jumped and killed himself. Now, still grieving for the loss of her only child, she spots another teenager about to take the plunge. She talks him off the ledge — literally — and takes him home to make sure he’s alright.

But what Ellie doesn’t realise is that things aren’t quite what they seem. Seventeen-year-old Sam seems reluctant to get in touch with his own family, so Ellie hides him away in her son’s old bedroom, not sure whether to tell her husband, Ben, that he’s there. Later, she moves him to their boat on the marina, where it’s unlikely he’ll be found or disturbed.

But then things begin to unravel when she spots bloodstains on Sam’s t-shirt. She begins to wonder if Sam is being straight with her. Is there more to his story than meets the eye? Her secret, often risky, investigations lead to one shocking revelation after another and before long the story is racing along at Formula One pace, and you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. It is, quite frankly a superb — if slightly far-fetched — ride.

An intriguing lead character

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, aside from the astute plotting and the way in which the narrative is punctuated by one surprise after another, is the character of Ellie. She’s no cardboard cut-out. This is a complex woman, beset by grief, and motivated by the knowledge that she has a second chance to save someone, even if that someone is a complete stranger. She’s strong-willed, with nerves of steel, and I loved her determination and resourcefulness.

Equally, Ben, her husband, is a fascinating character: he’s buried himself deep into suicide conspiracies to help cope with the loss of his son, so everything he says and does is tempered by a mild form of lunacy.

Together, they make a formidable pair, and even though their actions are sometimes slightly dubious — and often criminal — you can’t help but think that such questionable behaviour could be explained by such terrible grief.

A sensitive and mature novel 

While The Jump is ultimately a sensational novel that brims with suspense and danger,  it explores the issue of suicide with great sensitivity. Clearly, Johnstone has done his research — it feels authentic and believable and the mother’s emotions seem spot-on. Even the stresses and stains within the marriage, the different ways that Ben and Ellie have dealt with their grief, elevates the story above the usual run-of-the-mill thriller.

I also like the way that South Queensferry and the waters of the firth have been depicted with faithful and exacting detail, making these places characters in their own right and adding a distinctly Scottish flavour to the book.

I’d argue that this is Johnstone’s most mature work yet — he’s shied away from a big bombastic ending, and left things a little open-ended, which I liked, and he’s reined in some of the over-the-top shenanigans of past efforts. I just want to know when the film rights are going to be sold, because this would make a terrific movie — I can already see Kelly MacDonald and Ewan McGregor in the lead roles!

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Doug Johnstone, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘Gone Again’ by Doug Johnstone


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 256 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When it comes to high-octane psychological thrillers, Scottish writer Doug Johnstone knows how to deliver. I’ve read two of his novels — Smoke Heads (2011) and Hit & Run (2012) — and thoroughly enjoyed both. His latest novel, Gone Again, is another fine example of his raw, edgy and fast-paced narrative style.

A missing wife

The story, which is set in Edinburgh, revolves around a newspaper photographer, Mark Douglas, whose wife, Lauren, goes missing. Lauren was supposed to pick up their six-year-old son, Nathan, from school, but she never turned up.

Mark is out on assignment — photographing a pod of whales stranded in the waters off Portobello Beach — when Nathan’s school principal calls him to break the news.

At first, Mark thinks Lauren might have got side-tracked at work — she has a high-powered job in a real estate company — and simply forgot. But when she never answers her mobile or responds to her voicemail, Mark begins to suspect that something isn’t quite right. Has she run away? Or has someone done her harm?

The second time she’s disappeared

But this isn’t the first time Lauren has gone missing. Not long after Nathan’s birth, she disappeared for several weeks, which makes Mark wonder if history is merely repeating itself. If he keeps telling Nathan that his mother has simply gone on a work trip, perhaps when she eventually returns he’ll be none the wiser. But how long can you keep lying to an inquisitive six-year-old?

In Mark’s case, pretty much for as long as it takes. His relationship with Nathan is one of the novel’s strengths. In fact, Johnstone captures the joys and frustrations of parenthood so well that it’s easy to think you’re reading a gentle domestic drama — albeit tinged with a generous dose of paranoia.

When things really kick into action — about 50 pages from the end — it comes as quite a shock. The explosive finale, complete with Johnstone’s trademark Tarantino-like violence, is a little crazy but that’s largely a failing of the genre (in which all loose ends need to be tied up in dramatic fashion) rather than the author’s. In other words, it comes with the territory and doesn’t necessarily detract from the overall entertainment value of the novel.

Beautifully controlled reveals

In terms of narrative pacing, Gone Again is exceptionally good — the chapters are short, the writing is tight — but it is the beautifully controlled reveals that make this such a glorious page turner. Johnstone delivers a steady drip feed of information that makes you question Mark’s version of events all along the way — is his marriage with Lauren all that he says it is? What secrets do they have? And why are the police so hesitant to get involved?

I enjoyed the emotionally charged storyline even if I wasn’t entirely convinced by the over-the-top dénouement. But this is a novel filled with moments of genuine tenderness, genuine fear and genuine shock — perfect fodder for those who like their psychological thrillers with a bit of bite to them.

Gone Again will be published in ebook form in the UK tomorrow and paperback on 7 March.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Doug Johnstone, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘Hit & Run’ by Doug Johnstone


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.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Doug Johnstone, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘Smokeheads’ by Doug Johnstone


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 291 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I think it’s fair to say that Visit Scotland will never promote Doug Johnstone‘s Smokeheads, a black comedy set on the isle of Islay, as a must read. The story doesn’t exactly make the “Queen of the Hebrides” sound like an attractive place to go on holiday.

Sure, the scenery might be beautiful — all heather, peat bog and windswept coastlines — and the whisky distilleries fascinating — there are eight in total, each with a rich history — but in Johnstone’s novel the roads are dangerous, the cops are crooked and there’s murder and mayhem at every turn. In fact, this is one of the most exciting psychological thrillers I’ve read in a long time.

The main plot goes something like this: four middle-aged men from Edinburgh, all friends from university, visit Islay for a weekend trip in which they plan to visit several distilleries. They are all mad into their whiskies, especially Adam, who is a true “smokehead” — a fan of Islay malts — with a particular skill in “blind tastings”.

But no sooner have Adam, Ethan, Luke and Roddy arrived on the remote Scottish island than they have a run-in with a local policeman. It seems that Roddy, an investment banker with plenty of cash, cocaine and an attitude to match, has driven his top-of-the-range four-wheel-drive Audi a little too fast for this cop’s liking. While he is let off with a warning, it sets the tone for the rest of the weekend, which slides into a series of incidences, each one more reckless and dangerous than the one before it.

By the time the story draws to a close, just 48 hours after arriving on the island, only two of the party depart Islay relatively unscathed. So much for a fun-filled weekend away!

From the first sentence, Johnstone’s relentlessly paced narrative and easy prose style hooks the reader. Initially, you get lulled into thinking this is going to be a typical weekend lads’ trip away — the pubs, the girls, the hangovers — but then events begin to spiral out of control and things turn very dark very quickly.

The narrative is quite in-your-face in places, by which I mean it’s a little bit gruesome — think Reservoir Dogs meets Trainspotting meets The Wicker Man — and definitely not for the faint-hearted. And while the plot is slightly over the top, this is the type of psychological thriller that ambushes you from behind and refuses to let go. I hungrily devoured it in a matter of days.

But what elevates this novel above your usual run-of-the-mill thrillers is Johnstone’s superb characterisation (with the exception of the rogue cop, who is a bit cartoonish) and the way in which he captures the easy banter between old mates out on the tear.

He also has a certain ability to make even those of us who hate whisky hankering after a dram or two, he writes about it so beautifully…