Drunk on beetroot schnapps and off his face on illegally acquired meds, Billy Blackmore, a rookie crime journalist, makes one stupid decision that changes his life irrevocably. Driving home with his girlfriend and his brother, Charlie, after a party, Billy takes a detour to avoid the police and in doing so ends up in a situation far worse than being stopped for driving under the influence. Near Salisbury Crags the car hits something in the darkness - that something, they discover when they get out of the car, being a man. Billy's brother, a doctor, declares the man dead. With the man dead anyway, the trio quickly reason that to call the police would only ruin their own lives and promising careers so they carry the body off the road and dump it over the edge of the crags.
The next morning, hung-over and in pain from injuries he himself sustained during the accident, Billy swallows another handful of pills before meeting his boss, Rose, at Salisbury Crags where the body of a notorious local gang-leader has been found. Billy breathes a sigh of relief; this wasn't where they dumped the man he hit so it must be another death. However, when he arrives at the scene he snatches a glimpse of the body: the shoes and socks look sickeningly familiar. If the body was found at this spot then the man couldn't have been dead and must have dragged himself to this spot before finally dying. What should Billy do? He has a story to write but he knows that he really ought to hand himself in. As the fear, the guilt and the drugs start to take their toll Billy sinks into an abyss from which there surely can't be any way back.
Frank Whitehouse, everyone agrees, wasn't the sort of man to kill himself so someone must have murdered him. Sworn rivals the Mackie brothers are top of the police's list of suspects but there's no way they are going to cop for something they didn't do. Only Billy knows the truth and when, looking for a scoop for the paper, he falls for the charms of Whitehouse's widow his problems only get worse.
Having read and loved Doug Johnstone's previous novel 'Smokeheads' last year my expectations for 'Hit & Run' were high: I was not disappointed. The novels have much in common, both portraying, at an unrelenting breakneck pace, the aftermath of one moment of madness. That the story is going to end badly is never in doubt: this is a story there can't really be a happy ending to but Johnstone leaves his readers wondering just how bad things can possibly get as Billy lurches from one disaster to the next.
In Billy Blackmore Johnstone has created a character who really messes with your head. He's a drunk driver and for that there can be no excuse but there's something about him that makes you want everything to work out for him, or at least not get any worse. The fact that the dead man is a gangster with a reputation for extreme violence almost automatically puts you on Billy's side, a feeling that grows stronger as the journalist delves deeper into Whitehouse's affairs.
As dark and occasionally brutal, as 'Hit & Run' may be, there are also pockets of humour; Johnstone has a fine ear for dialogue and captures the essence of Scottish banter, especially in the relationship between Billy and Rose. I loved that against all the chaos and violence Billy acquires a dog; popping more pills than all the patients on a neurology ward and spiralling fast towards a complete breakdown, the idea of Billy taking on a dog that needs to be looked after is darkly comedic. Staggering around Edinburgh and moving increasingly further from reality as he trails the poor dog around, Billy reminded me of those poor characters from the films of Shane Meadows, tragic anti-heroes that we end up rooting for.
Johnstone tells this story with admirable economy; he sets up characters quickly so as not to interrupt the blistering pace at which this story is played out. Even the flashbacks that describe the brothers' childhood illuminate our understanding of their relationship without distracting from the main event. Johnstone himself is almost journalistic in the way he includes only what needs to be in the story, yet at the same time captures those details which make this tale so vivid and believable.
Doug Johnstone can cut it with the very best of the Scottish noir set. I can't wait to find out what he's got up his sleeve. If it's half as good as 'Hit & Run' it's going to be a treat.
I was fortunate to spot this on promotion on bought the Kindle edition for just 99 Pence. The Kindle edition is now priced at £4.74 and the paperback at £5.27 (Prices correct on 16th April 2013). According to Faber & Faber, the publishers, the paperback edition has 272 pages
Mention "Edinburgh" and "crime" and "books" and you're likely to think of Ian Rankin. Mention "Edinburgh" and "drugs" and "books" and Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting is likely to be the first thing that comes to your lips. It seems they might have a rival, though. On the evidence of Hit and Run, mentioning "Edinburgh", "crime" "drugs" and books might make you think of relative newcomer Doug Johnstone.
Driving home drunk and high on drugs, Billy Blackmore, his brother Charlie and his girlfriend hit a man and kill him. A split second decision to drive away without calling the police has severe consequences when it is discovered that the victim is a local crime lord. His death is attributed to a rival gang and leads to a vicious battle for revenge between the two.
This stripped down plot summary really does capture the central idea behind the book. It's not a complex book; it doesn't pretend to address difficult issues or to take a moral stance on the drugs agenda and there really is little more to it than the one simple idea. Yet from that, author Doug Johnstone weaves a thrilling noir-style narrative that is, quite simply, one of the best books I have read for quite some time.
Hit and Run grabbed me from the off. The stripped-down nature of the narrative perfectly suits the book's pace which is perhaps best described as "breakneck". It reinforces the idea that the main character is being steamrollered by events, which are running out of control. There's no messing around here; no padding out the text. The initial accident happens within the first ten pages and the pace carries on at the same pace for the rest of the book. Yet, despite its fast pace, it's also an intelligent book, showing how every little event and every decision can lead to bigger and more serious consequences.
Unlike the writings of James Patterson (who adopts a similar stripped down approach), you never feel that the fast pace is achieved at the expense of the characters. Although we only really get to know the central character (through whose eyes the events are witnessed), all the support characters still feel fully formed. The brief glimpses we get show both the best and the worst of human nature and characters behave in exactly the way you expect them to. Johnstone is clearly a very astute observer of human behaviour and because characters act in accordance with your expectations (essentially looking out for themselves); there is no need to provide in-depth character profiles.
It's interesting that Hit and Run's main character is deeply likeable almost in spite of himself. On the face of it, Billy (like his brother and girlfriend) is a deeply selfish character. A habitual drug user, he could be thought selfish, thoughtless, irresponsible and even despicable. Yet somehow, Johnstone manages to portray Billy in a positive light. Even though we know what he has done and that he is wholly guilty, we want Blackmore to escape from his predicament with both his life and his reputation intact. It's always tricky to make a fundamentally flawed character likeable, but Johnstone succeeds; and this is a crucial element behind the book's success.
It's also pleasing the way Johnstone uses the backdrop of Edinburgh to give his book a real sense of place; it's almost a character in its own right. Edinburgh is a city that I have been to a few times, but don't really know that well. Despite that, I felt really at home and comfortable with the book's location. The setting is used effectively and produces a real sense of a conflicted city of extremes (where affluence clashes with poverty; refinement with violence) and again, these are contradictions which are reflected in the main character's own tormented mind.
I did have some slight concerns about how Johnstone could possibly end the book in an appropriate way. Too happy an ending would clash horribly with the downbeat tone of the rest of the book; whilst a realistic ending would probably be too depressing to bear. Once again, it's a balancing act that Johnstone manages, producing an ending that is both in keeping with the tone of the rest of the book and realistic and believable.
Perhaps the book's biggest downside is its use of explicit language. The text reads a bit like a Quentin Tarantino film. The dialogue is littered with certain words beginning with F, C and B, amongst many others. In the context of the book, this is a realistic portrayal of the seedy underworld of life in our cities (gangsters don't say "I say, old chap, I'm rather displeased with what you have done there. I believe I may have to take action to revenge myself against you). If you are easily offended, though, then the proliferation of expletives might seriously hamper your enjoyment of the story.
Doug Johnstone is an author I had never come across before and I only bought this because it was reduced to 99p as part of Amazon's Daily Deal. If it's indicative of Johnstone's other books (and reviews of his other titles suggest it is), then I'll certainly be buying more in future.
Available for about £6 in paperback or £3 on Kindle, I'd recommend the latter (or a cheap second hand copy). Whilst it is a very enjoyable book, it is also probably one you will only read once.
Hit and Run
Faber and Faber, 2012
© Copyright SWSt 2012