If I was the Edinburgh Tourist Board, I would pay Doug Johnstone a retainer never to write about Edinburgh again. Tyler and his family do not live in the Edinburgh that tourists want to know about. They live in Niddrie, in what is described as “an area of social deprivation”. Tyler’s mother, Angela, is addicted to heroin and frequently overdoses. Tyler’s half-brother, Barry, is a psychotic, who earns his living by housebreaking, coercing his sister, Kelly and Tyler into helping him. Tyler is trying to bring his sister, Bean, up safely in the midst of all this chaos. Tyler is a good brother. He cooks and cleans, delivers his sister to school where she is known by her real name, Bethany.
Then, one night, Barry decides that they are going out on the rob again and he decides on a house which looks like rich pickings. It is the house of one of Edinburgh’s gangland bosses. That is when the disaster begins, which plays out with all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy.
In the midst of all this Tyler meets Flick, a very posh Edinburgh girl with problems of her own, and she gets caught up in the events following the housebreaking. The only other thing I will say about the plot is that it ends with more corpses than Hamlet.
This is not the Edinburgh that the tourists see, when they come to the Festival in August. This is not the Edinburgh of the Old Town with its castle, and the New Town with its Georgian squares. It is an Edinburgh that Rebus would be familiar with, but it is much darker, much more vicious than that.
This is a carefully crafted story. You will want Tyler and Flick and Bean to survive, but you will not have any idea about how they are going to do this, or even if they are going to survive. You will even want Angela to pull through and it is hard to have any sympathy for her. There is also an endearing part of the story where Bean discovers a mongrel and her three puppies, and you will certainly want that to go well.
Doug Johnstone is a master storyteller, and has been so since his very first book. But this is not a tale for the gentle-hearted. Some people will find the language alone to be offensive, especially the use of particular words. Nor will they accept that this is quite normal speech for the Central Belt of Scotland. Doug Johnstone does not flinch from using such language as a necessary part of the tale, making them true to the place that they come from. So, if you object this is not the book for you. You will not be able to blot the language out. If, on the other hand, you want to read a story about the lower depths of Scottish society and how they live, you can learn a great deal from this book.
And it is a very good story.