Let’s lay our cards on the table before we begin – Doug Johnstone is not only one of SWH!’s favourite writers, but among our favourite people, holding the joint record for podcast appearances with the equally loved and admired Louise Welsh. As such, a new novel from the man is a cause for celebration round our way, so we have dug out the bunting out for his latest, Fault Lines, which is finally with us.
To say “finally” is admittedly harsh for such a prolific writer. From 2011-2016 he had written and published a book a year – Smokeheads, Hit & Run, Gone Again, The Dead Beat, The Jump and Crash Land – a remarkable run of some of the most genuinely thrilling writing of recent times. 2017 was the first year with no Doug Johnstone novel for six, and while it is stretching a point too far to say we were suffering from withdrawal symptoms, he was definitely missed. This is because a large part of the appeal of his writing is that there are many traits of true noir/pulp fiction in his work – quickly devoured leaving a keen desire to read what comes next.
Perhaps partly explaining the gap year, 2017 saw Johnstone change publishers moving to the eclectic and always intriguing Orenda Books, who also publish Michael J. Malone and David F. Ross, a move which made regular readers wonder what the result of this new partnership would be. The short answer is that Fault Lines has enough of the new to make things interesting and distinguish it from what’s gone before, but maintaining Johnstone’s unmistakeable style to keep his fans more than happy. The long answer follows.
Fault Lines is set in an Edinburgh which will be recognisable to those familiar with the geography of the city; the streets the characters walk and the places and pubs they visit, but there is a twist. A tectonic fault has opened up producing volcanic activity in the Firth of Forth, causing regular tremors and making the resulting new land mass, known as The Inch, a scientific as well as a literal hotspot. This is treated lightly, serving as a plot point, but, as with all of Johnstone’s writing, the meaning you decide is down to the reader. You can make up your own metaphors.
Volcanologist Surtsey has regular illicit liaisons with Tom, her lover and boss, at The Inch, believing it to be a safe place for them to meet. As the book opens, her latest trip results in her discovering Tom’s dead body and instead of admitting she found it decides it best to keep their relationship secret to friends, and the police. Secrets as big as Surtsey’s rarely stay such, and when an unidentified caller contacts her claiming to know who she is and what she’s done, her need to see the crime solved is initially more about self-preservation rather than any burning desire for justice, but it proves a strong motivation for her to act.
And then, as regular readers will understand all too well, we are off, with barely time to take a breath until matters are resolved. Using short, sharp sentences, and no unnecessary prose, few can move the action along at the pace Johnstone does once the premise is set – he is the very definition of an unputdownable writer,
While not being up there with the very best of Doug Johnstone – the high marks so far being Gone Again and The Jump which are his most emotive and affective reads – Fault Lines does point to a more thoughtful writer in terms of style and content. Johnstone has always been as interested in the human fragilities and faults which lie behind the crimes, but this seems to increasingly be at the forefront of his thoughts. He does not set out to shock as he did in his earlier work, now it is more psychological than psychotic. With Fault Lines, you’ll be drawn in by the twists and turns, but the questions which stay with you are, “What would you do, and why?”. Be honest, and just hope you are happy with your conclusions.