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.