Tag Archives: Doug Johnstone

For the Joy of Reading: Fault Lines

Doug Johnstone requires you to believe two improbable things at the start of this book.   First, that a volcanic island has erupted in the Firth of Forth, turning Edinburgh into an earthquake zone.   And secondly, that Louise, a geologist going into labour at the time of the eruption, decides to call her daughter Surtsey.   This is the volcanic island that emerged to the south of Iceland during such an eruption in, if I remember correctly, the 1960s.   Personally, I find the former more likely than the latter, but then people from Edinburgh are capable of anything.

Surtsey is the central character of this story.   It begins with a murder on the said volcanic island, which is called The Inch, from the Gaelic, Inish, which means island.   The one thing that we know is that it is not Tom Lawrie, one of Surtsey’s two lovers, because he is the corpse.   We also know that Surtsey was going to meet him on the Inch, for a romantic tryst, and that when she finds the corpse she rows away as fast as she can.   That happens in the first five to ten pages.   The question is, who did it?   And why?

One other person can be ruled out, and that is Louise because she is terminally ill in a hospice overlooking the Firth.   But otherwise, there are plenty of suspects.   Is it Alice, Tom’s vengeful wife?   Is it Halima, who likes getting Surtsey doped to the eyeballs?   Is it Iona, Surtsey’s sister, who is not coping with Louise’s illness?   Is it Brendan, Surtsey’s other lover?  Is it Donna, the old school friend?   Is it Bastian, the leader of the New Age protesters, who want the Inch left in peace?   At one point, I thought it might even be either Yates or Flanagan, the Rebus-like policemen, but lacking his vivacity and charm.   This should give you a clue about how difficult it is to work out whodidit?   I did, but it took me quite some time.

There is also a logic to the way that the story progresses.   From the discovery of Tom’s corpse, being devoured by seagulls and crows, and Surtsey running away, the possible options for her become more and more limited.   She has fled from a crime scene.   There are questions that run through her head.   When will the body be discovered?   Was she seen on the Inch?   Can she cover her tracks?   And, of course, who killed him?   This is not the usual progression in a detective story.   We know that she has something to hide, and we know what it is.   But this is not a detective story: it is a thriller.   There are certainly are thrills – plenty of them.    Doug Johnstone knows how to keep you on tenterhooks.

But enough of the story line.   You will need to read the book to find out what happens.   I am not going to tell you.   What I will tell you is that Doug Johnstone writes very much in the tradition of Raymond Carver.   To describe the writing style as short and pithy does not do these sentences the justice that they deserve.   They are sharp and to the point.   There is not a word wasted.   There is no fat in them to be trimmed away.   Yet, they manage to be elegant, conveying precisely the trajectory of the story.

One final thing: I got this book at the launch event last night in Edinburgh and I finished it over breakfast this morning.   I did get some sleep last night, but it was not enough.   I blame you, Doug Johnstone.

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For the Joy of Reading: Crash Land

I love Doug Johnstone’s books.   They do not end happily ever after.   He recognises that life is messy, that people make mistakes and that there are consequences.   And there is no question that Finn makes a mistake.   It is not so much that he lets an older woman chat him up at Orkney Airport, when it is obvious that she is only doing it to get away from an oil worker who is sexually harassing her.   It is the fact that he gets involved in a fight with the oil worker on a plane when all he had to do was call one of the stewards for help.   This fight leads to the crash landing of the title and, this being a Doug Johnstone novel, mayhem follows.

Doug Johnstone obviously thinks that the Scottish Islands are places of dark passion and extreme violence.   If you don’t believe me, read Smokeheads.   There are enough bodies in Crash Land to make the Midsomer Murders look restrained.   This book, however, is much more interesting than that because Doug Johnstone does not shy away from the ethical issues.   To my mind, ethical issues lie at the heart of Johnstone’s writing, and his main characters do not always make the right choices.   And Finn, as I have already said, does not necessarily make the right choices.   He certainly does not make the sensible ones.

I cannot explain this conclusion because that would involve giving away the plot of the book.   So what can I tell you about?   I will start with the style.   Johnstone is a master storyteller.   He knows how to spin a yarn.   He leads the reader on from cliffhanger to cliffhanger.   Have no doubt about that.   You will really want to know what happens next, and what will happen to Finn and Maddie.   You may think that Finn is insane to get himself involved with Maddie, but you will certainly understand why he does.   She is the classic femme fatale, prepared to use a young man for her own convenience, but you will wonder if she actually falls for Finn.   If you think of D’Artagnan and Milady de Winter, you will get the idea.   Or of Ava Gardner’s character in Showboat singing “Can’t help loving that man of mine”.   Maddie is that kind of dangerous woman.

Doug Johnstone is superb at writing thrillers.   He writes with verve and urgency.   The motivations of his characters are plausible.   You will not want to put this book down and at the ending you will think “Please God, no”.

For the Joy of Reading: Jump

This is a grim book, which somehow manages to be uplifting.    Doug Johnstone is not the kind of author to spare his readers the sheer horror and nastiness of life, but he does not leave us in despair.   Nor does he leave us thinking that everything can be fixed, and that everything will turn out for the best in the best of all possible worlds.   He knows that is not true.    He is not Pangloss, not by any means.   But he also knows that humans are resilient and that they cope.   And this story is very much about that process of coping and surviving.

The story begins with Sam standing on the parapet of the Forth Bridge about to jump.   Ellie sees him.   He is in the spot where her son, Logan, committed suicide six months previously.   Ellie talks Sam down.   And then slowly Ellie finds out why he was going to jump and gets embroiled in Sam’s life.   Things do not get better from there.

To be honest, they get steadily worse.   Except for one thing, which is Ellie’s determination to protect Sam, and his sister Libby, and to make things as right for them as it is possible to be..   This is a story about how we achieve redemption.   It makes you ask if second chances are possible.   It shows how desperation can lead people into some terrible places.   It shows how people can be led inexorably to a place where their choices are so limited as to be non-existent.   Job would recognise the dilemma that Ellie finds herself in.

I am not going to tell you what that dilemma is.   For that, you must read the book.   I repeat, however, that this is not an easy book to read.   The plot is driven by Logan’s suicide.   If Logan had not jumped, Ellie would not have been on the bridge, and there would be no story.  And Logan’s suicide is a thread of despair that runs throughout the book.   It has happened.   It cannot be made better.

Doug Johnstone is obviously aware that suicide is the biggest cause of death amongst young men.   The Jump is his method of bringing this fact to our attention, and making us think about the issue.   He holds our attention because he is a consummate storyteller, but also because he has something to say about something important.   You will really want to know what happens to the characters in this story, and how they come through the mess in which they find themselves.

Johnstone is too good a writer to provide easy answers, and sometimes he does not provide any.   The question underlying the whole story is this: Why did Logan jump off the bridge?   The only person who can answer that is Logan, and he is six months dead at the start of this novel.

If you want a book where people do not swear and curse when stressed, this is not for you.   If you want a book where it all ends happily ever after, do not read this book.

If you want a book that examines the tragedy of life, if you want a book that deals with the darkest places of the soul, if you want a book that thinks about hope, redemption and salvation, then this book is for you.   You will not find this an easy story, but you will be the better for reading it.