Interview: Doug Johnstone, author of Hit and Run

Johnstone on Salisbury Crags, the setting for his new thriller. Picture: Neil Hanna
Johnstone on Salisbury Crags, the setting for his new thriller. Picture: Neil Hanna
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LIFE can change in a moment. An unexpected event prompts a moral choice, and that split-second decision changes everything. Such is the stuff, a novelist will tell you, of which compelling stories are made.

Doug Johnstone’s new novel, Hit and Run, begins with such a moment. Billy Blackmore is driving home through Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park with his girlfriend and brother. They’ve been at a party, all three tanked up on booze and pills. When they hit a pedestrian and believe the man to be dead, they must decide whether to report the death and end up in court, or just drive home and keep quiet.

Johnstone, 41, who is already known for thrillers such as his debut, Tombstoning, and 2010’s Smokeheads, says the idea of a split-second moral dilemma fascinated him. “You can describe it in one line. In a moment of incredible stress, you make a decision and then you have to deal with the consequences.

“I think that happens best in movies – like Deliverance [in which four businessmen on a canoe trip become murderers]. Or Helen Fitzgerald’s new book, The Donor, where a guy has two grown-up daughters who are both going to die of kidney failure, and he has got two healthy kidneys. Does he give to one and not the other? That’s a whole book right there. Instantly gripping.”

We could go on: Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, about a hunter who stumbles on the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong: several bodies and two million dollars in a satchel. Danny Boyle’s debut movie, Shallow Grave, in which three Edinburgh friends discover their new flatmate dead – next to a suitcase containing £1 million. The key is to feel the horns of the dilemma, neither choice is ideal, each has something to commend it.

“With any book, I want it to be about ordinary people like you or me, in extraordinary situations. How they react in those situations will reveal their character. I’m not interested in writing about heroes and villains, but everyday people facing horrible circumstances.”

For Billy Blackmore, there is no carrying on as normal. As a trainee crime reporter (on a fictional version of the Edinburgh Evening News) he finds himself called to Holyrood Park the next day. A body has been found – the man Blackmore hit. But now he has a name, and it’s Frank Whitehouse, the city’s biggest crime lord.

While foul play is suspected, and Whitehouse’s thugs are taking revenge on rival gang leaders, Blackmore finds himself pursuing more than an interview with the dead man’s widow, Adele. Driven away from those closest to him, his girlfriend, Zoe, and brother, Charlie, while struggling with the physical effects of the crash, he finds himself in a vortex, spiralling out of control.

Johnstone and I discuss all this while calmly drinking coffee in the Salisbury Arms, the recently revamped pub opposite the Commonwealth Pool, which appears in the novel, albeit in one of its earlier, grungier, incarnations. The disabled toilet here is the scene of one of Billy’s unwise choices, involving sex and cocaine. Across the wall beyond the beer garden lies the house in Blacket Avenue which Johnstone made the fictional home of the Whitehouses.

He says he was determined that the Edinburgh of the novel would be as real as possible. Blackmore’s flat in Rankeillor Street is the flat he lived in himself as a new graduate. Salisbury Crags, a stone’s throw away in the other direction, is the scene of many of the book’s key events, and a brooding presence throughout, symbolic of Blackmore’s own tormented conscience.

“I lived in the south side of Edinburgh for years,” he says . “It’s the area I know best of all. I wanted to use that. The book is really claustrophobic, the action covers about one square mile. You can walk for ten minutes from that house in Blacket Avenue and you’re in the estates at The Inch, it’s that cliché of Edinburgh, the really rich next to the really poor.”

He admits that anyone setting a novel in Edinburgh is entering an already crowded literary landscape. “So many people have written about it, from Muriel Spark to Ian Rankin to Irvine Welsh, what do I have to add?

“But you always do have something to add, your own attitude, your own perspective. In the end, I didn’t worry too much about it. You just crack on and hope that whatever you write finds an audience.”

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge one’s literary antecedents. “Anyone writing a crime novel or a thriller has to be aware of the 20-odd Rebus books. If you’re a crime writer setting a novel in Edinburgh, it would take a lot of balls to write police procedurals because so many people have done it so well.”

He gives Rankin a jokey nod in Hit and Run – Frank Whitehouse has a dog called Rebus. The irony isn’t lost on the characters in the book and it won’t be lost on his readers either. For a moment, he looks anxious: “We’ll have to see what Ian Rankin thinks about that.”

He admits that it may be the sense of literary overcrowding which made him slow to write about the city himself. Tombstoning is set in Arbroath, where he grew up, The Ossians is about a band on tour round Scotland, and Smokeheads centres on a whisky-fuelled lads’ weekend on the island of Islay.

Which makes, incidentally, for the second drink-and-drugs-fuelled car crash in as many books. “I am obsessed with car crashes,” Johnstone says, looking momentarily shamefaced. “I’m sure if Freud got me on the couch, he would work it out. I’ve written a couple of short stories about them, and film scripts and some songs. I think I’ve just about got it out of my system with Hit and Run.”

The new novel is written in a tighter, more spare style than any of his previous books. Like it or hate it, you’ll read it quickly. He says he has been influenced by reading classic noir: The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain, Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. Books little more than 100 pages long, which manage to combine tense action and sharply drawn characters with pace and brevity. His agent is Allan Guthrie, himself a writer of very fine noir.

“I think there’s an elemental beauty to it. I review a lot of books, and a lot of them are too f***ing long. I’ve read lots and lots where the author’s going: ‘Look at me, look at my language.’ I can’t stand anything that draws attention away from the story. Looking back to my first two books make me cringe. They’re both books about ideas first, and the plot and the characters service that. It’s totally the f***ing wrong way to do it. It always has to be about story.”

While Hit and Run is a violent book, it is perhaps less violent, injury for injury, than Smokeheads. “If the story leads to a violent scene, you shouldn’t shy away from that. If it services the story, I do it as I see fit. In the book I’m working on at the moment, there isn’t any violence at all until very close to the end and then not much. But it’s definitely the creepiest book I’ve ever written.”

Johnstone has a PhD in nuclear physics and worked designing radar and missile guidance systems for military aircraft before retraining as a journalist and beginning to write fiction. Hit and Run is, among other things, a celebration of what his characters call “old-fashioned journalism”: door-knocking and shoe-leather and getting the story. “There is a line, I think the editor says: ‘Jesus Christ, we’re like the new Twitter, we’re so ahead of the game on this one’.

“Newspapers are really struggling. But at some point someone has to discover news, people have to find out things, it’s not just sitting at home looking at Twitter and Facebook. There has to be a place for a crime reporter going out and talking to people at doors, going to crime scenes finding out things.”

As the newspaper industry is changing, so is the music industry – Johnstone is a songwriter and musician with the band Northern Alliance, and made his first solo EP last year.

And publishing is changing too, with the rise of ebooks, and the launch of projects like Allan Guthrie’s Blasted Heath, Scotland’s first digital-only publisher. In conventional book publishing, times are hard for writers, with fewer signings and reduced advances.

“When I first announced that I had a two-book deal with Faber, I got e-mails from other writers saying: ‘Yeah! Publishers are still signing writers!’ It’s all doom and gloom at the moment. But the death of the publishing industy is exaggerated a little. E-books are making publishers concerned, but the majority of books sold are printed books, it’s not a massive revolution happening immediately.

“I think it will become like music, the majority of people will be downloading most stuff, but they will still want their favourite books and authors, the equivalent of vinyl.

“People who are making things – books, music, are earning less and less, everyone expects downloads for free.”

He grins. “We’re all doomed! In the meantime, I’m writing books.”

• Hit and Run by Doug Johnstone is published by Faber, priced £12.99 in paperback, £9.99 e-book.