Doug Johnstone is an avant-garde jeweller of the crimewriting world – he crafts eye-catching work from seemingly mundane parts, puts his characters under so much pressure it’s a wonder they don’t turn into diamonds by the closing chapter and much prefers to create quirky individual pieces (read: standalone novels) to churning out something charming-but-familiar (read: a police procedural series).
His geography, too, is all about roads less taken: earlier novels have transported us to Arbroath, Islay and -–in The Jump, which was shortlisted for 2016’s McIlvanney Prize for best crime novel of the year – South Queensferry. Now Crash Land takes us to Orkney. For Johnstone this is a place littered with ancient history where the weather rages and everyone knows your name, your family history and quite possibly what you had for breakfast – a nicely suffocating setting for a crime novel.
He’s also a master of the page-turning, heart-gripping, plot-driven tale. Here, art student Finn, on his way back to Dundee from a visit to his grandmother, meets Maddie when he helps her fend off the unwanted attention of an oil worker in the bar of Kirkwall Airport – but a handful of short, sharp chapters later, the oil worker and several other people are dead, and Finn is reeling with concussion in the wreckage of a crashed plane from which Maddie has vanished.
Despite having a girlfriend in Dundee, Finn becomes obsessed with the mysterious Maddie. In trying to protect a woman he only just met and knows nothing about, a fact underlined several times as the novel unfolds, he gets himself further into trouble with the police investigating the plane crash, stubbornly refusing to talk about what happened. Meanwhile, despite the advice the reader is screaming at him about not poking a wasps’ nest, he digs into what might have caused Maddie to flee the crash scene. This leads him to uncover an unsavoury side to island life that puts not only himself but also his grandmother and his girlfriend in peril.
There’s almost too much plot crammed into this short book, and it might have benefited from a few lulls to allow the author to investigate his characters more deeply. But Johnstone is skilled at making the incredible believable – thanks for the most part to putting ordinary people at the heart of his novels – and overall this is an absorbing read. It’s no wonder he mostly chooses to write standalone stories as opposed to creating a series – it’s hard to see any of his characters being able to cope with a second dose of his imagination.
*Crash Land by Doug Johnstone, Faber & Faber, £12.99