Pills, Thrills & Faulty Brakes: A Review of Doug Johnstone’s Hit & Run…
Doug Johnstone’s last novel Smokeheads was the most breathless and exciting book I read last year, the action only stopping for a swift glug of single malt before matters move on to the next bloody setpiece. It announced Johnstone’s arrival as a writer who had discovered a voice and style that was all their own. In an an interview he gave to Scots Whay Hae! last year he talked about his next novel, saying that it would be
‘stylistically, a culmination of my move towards a stripped-back, bare bones prose style, heavily influenced by the classic American noir writers of the last seventy years.’
Well he wasn’t lying. Hit & Run is as lean as writing gets. Notice the use of the ampersand on the cover. Johnstone doesn’t have time to waste writing out ‘and’ when a simple symbol will do. He, and his characters, have places to be. It is writing as if soundtracked by Motorhead or The Ramones; heads down, full throttle, and we’ll see you at the end.
Without wanting to give too much away, the novel centres around Billy Blackmore, a fledgling crime journalist who decides to take the risk of driving his girlfriend and brother home while under the influence, leading to the hit and run of the title. What unfolds is a terrifying tale as to how one event, or a rash decision, can change your life forever. The chain of events take over Billy before he knows what’s happening and the question that runs through the text is ‘what if?’. By making his central characters and the situations that they find themselves in easily recognisable, Johnstone allows readers to feel empathy, if not always sympathy, with what unfolds. Everyone can think of a situation that could have led to disaster if things had turned out differently, if we had turned left instead of right. Actions, consequences and responsibility are all questioned, but this is not a morality tale. Billy is not being punished for his decisions, rather he is trying to right what he perceives as his mistake.
There is a noir feel to Hit & Run in that the violence is realistic enough to shock without being sensational, and all the characters wear their flaws on their sleeves. Keeping with the traits of noir there are very few who are what they seem, or who are not primarily looking out for themselves. It is this that makes Billy the ‘hero’ as he at least is trying to make amends. In doing so he learns about himself, but also harsh truths about others. An idea which runs throughout all of Johnstone’s writing appears to be that one of the few certainties in life is that people will let you down, and if they haven’t, then you just haven’t found out yet. Some may say that’s a bleak view of humanity, others may say it’s honest. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
The supporting cast boasts plenty of memorable turns. There’s Dean, the gangster bent on revenge, the femme fatale widow Adele, the inquisitive policeman, and the deceitful partner; all of these characters could have been stereotypes but are saved by being given enough humanity and emotion to make them believable. The best of the lot is Rose, Billy’s journalistic mentor who allows him to follow his leads and make enough mistakes while always being ready to back him. Their relationship is the most honest in the novel, and shows that Johnstone isn’t the misanthrope that some may believe.
What he absolutely gets right is a strong sense of place. The novel is set in Edinburgh, mainly on, around, or in the shadow of Salisbury Crags. Even if you don’t know this location you can picture it clearly. Like Louise Welsh he manages to capture the spirit of a place effortlessly, and takes the reader right there. Put simply, he involves the reader. The opening scenes in the car as it travels barely under control through the Edinburgh streets make you feel as if you are a fourth passenger, exhilarated and terrified in equal measure. This close proximity to the action means that you have to question what you would do in the same situation. It’s a bit like being point of view in a video game.
Both Hit & Run and Smokeheads are evidence of a writer comfortable in who he is and what he writes. It was interesting to hear him say recently that he can’t return to his first two novels Tombstoning and The Ossians as he feels that at the time he was trying to write for some literary ideal, in a style that was not his own. The thought of that now obviously annoys him, and his determination not to include any detail, character or even sentence which is not necessary to moving the action along is a result of this (although he is being hard on himself. The Ossians in particular has many memorable moments, particularly if your not very fond of seagulls). Hit & Run is Doug Johnstone’s best novel yet, an exhausting thriller that is dark, deadly and downright addictive. If there is a more entertaining novel this year it’ll have to be a belter.