Doug Johnstone (2013) Gone Again.

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I recently read Doug Johnstone’s The Jump. I enjoyed it, so had a look at his back catalogue. In many ways we all write the same story again and again. I liked the Godfather of Scottish noir, William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw series, more for the characters and the Glasgow landscape than his ramshackle plots in which Laidlaw didn’t so much solve the case but tilt the world off its axis, which made him slightly less miserable. That’s Glesgca fer you.

Doug Johnstone does Edinburgh (I write about Clydebank).  Johnstone keeps things simple. Man, woman and child. One of them is in jeopardy.  Two word—explanatory—title, in The Jump it was the man and woman, because the child had already jumped. It was a tale of redemption set around the waters of the Firth of Forth and Queensferry Bridge.

Here we have Mark, who is married to Lauren and they have a son, Nathan. Mark works as a photographer, freelance, gig-economy (that’s the new 1 in 10 of use working in shitty jobs) and he’s trying to get the money shot, a picture of pilot whales, ‘spyhopping’ in the waters of the Firth. That’s a technical term which means poking their noses into other folk’s business. Mark’s on the shoreline of Portobello beach and he’s out of luck, he doesn’t get the shot he wants. When one pilot whale beaches, the others do too. It’s a kind of mass suicide and a suitable backdrop, or second string to the main narrative, which is Lauren has went missing.

Gone Again, implies, none too subtly, it’s happened before. When Lauren had Nathan she disappeared for about ten weeks. Postnatal depression was the diagnosis, but like those pilot whales in shallow water and beaching themselves, it was a way of hanging together some descriptions and some current idea about behaviour we don’t understand.

Lauren in the character in jeopardy here, but her disappearance destroys any semblance of normality. Johnstone is saying it could happen to us. Fling in the usual mix of gangsters, property rackets, incest and cops that are a bit stupid and last to know and you’re talking about one of my books, but since this is Edinburgh it’s Doug Johnstone’s turf. I’ll bow to him. Keep it simple and keep it moving.

You need to love your characters. That’s the real strength of Johnstone’s writing. These are people we know. Mark and Lauren and Nathan.  These are people like us. Read on.

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Doug Johnstone (2015) The Jump

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I came to read Doug Johntone’s  The Jump, sideways. I’d never heard of the guy, but read a review and thought, aye. And I’m glad I did. Doug Johnstone is the business.

If I need to talk about setting, then you’ve got it wrong. Ellie does the work for you. She knows every park bench and every pebble that has rolled down a hill around the Forth Road Bridge and South Queensferry. It’s imprinted on the page.

Ellie likes the pain of tattoos, a reminder, not that she needs one, of her son, Logan, who jumped off the bridge. No reason. He just jumped. His suicide took around 5.6 seconds.

Ben, Ellie’s husband, follows up every conspiracy theory that could account for Logan’s suicide. Something in the water. Something in the air. Someone spinning out of orbit and threatening not to come back again.

Ellie and Ben don’t really want to live. Time doesn’t bring healing, but reminders of what they’ve lost. Then Ellie gets a second chance. She coaxes Sam down from the struts of the bridge, stops him from committing suicide. He’s a boy, slightly older than Logan. She offers a change of clothing, Logan’s casual wear, and a new start.

Ellie finds redemption in Sam and a reason to live. Sam finds a saviour. Ellie promises him she’ll fix whatever has happened in his life, make it better. He asks awkward questions, like how? Ellie admits she doesn’t know.

Then Ellie finds out to save Sam she needs to save his wee sister, Libby. To save the family, she needs to save their mum and get rid of their father, who’s a cop. She needs Ben’s help. They need to do the right thing, while staying the wrong side of the law.

‘The trick was not to give anyone a reason to look.’

Quests ask questions of the reader. Whose side are you on? I’m with Ellie. She’s human in the way we’re meant to be. A fucking marvel that bleeds on the page. I’m with Doug Johnson. I’ll be reading more of his work.

 

Bloody Scotland (2017)

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I’m familiar with the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival. I’m vain enough to imagine my work may appear in it someday, but the chance seem as remote as Rangers winning ten-in-a-row. Historic Scotland asked novelists  whom they considered to be the top twelve crime writers in Scotland to write a story for them. The starting point was not character, or plot, but place. Easy-peasy for any writer or would-be writer and as reading is the engine of writing it gives me the chance to look at some seasoned writers’ work.

My favourite stories were Kinneil House, Sanctuary, written by Sara Sheridan. This inspired me and was a jumping off point to write a story of my own. Edinburgh Castle, Nemo Me Impune Lacessit, written by Denise Mina – with echoes of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin – ran Sheridan’s story close and I’d gauge it here as my second favourite. It’s all a matter of interpretation, of course. There’s no story stinkers, but there are a few predictable turns and not unexpected endings.

Maeshowe, Orkahowe, by Lin Anderson – haunting.

The Hermit’s Castle, Ancient and Modern, by Val McDermid – Old Testament justice.

Stanley Mills, Kissing the Shuttle, by E S Thomson – incestuous.

The Forth Bridge, Painting the Forth Bridge, by Doug Johnstone – no return ticket.

Bothwell Castle, The Last Siege of Bothwell Castle, by Chris Brookmyre – gallus.

Kinnaird Head Lighthouse, Stevenson’s Castle, by Stuart MacBride – Janus-faced.

Crookston Castle, History Lessons, by Gordon Brown –old school.

Crossraguel Abbey, Come Friendly Bombs, by Louise Welsh – eat your heart out.

St Peter’s Seminary, Cardross, The Twa Corbie of Cardross by Craig Robertson– Bard and Burns and corvines too.

Mousa Broch, The Return, by Ann Cleeves – doppelganger revenge.