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.