The Ties That Bind: A Review Of Doug Johnstone’s Breakers…

As Scots Whay Hae! moves towards its 10th year one writer in particular has been with us most of the way – the estimable Doug Johnstone. Since 2011’s Smokeheads he has published novels at a rate of almost one a year (a fantastic run which should be celebrated) all of which have been reviewed on these pages, and, (along with Louise Welsh), he is the writer who has guested on the most SWH! podcasts to date. As such, a new novel is always eagerly awaited and welcomed, and with Breakers (his second with the excellent Orenda Books) he may just have given us his best yet.

You could argue that his novels can be split into two categories. First off there are the no-holds-barred joyrides of the aforementioned Smokeheads, Hit & Run, The Dead Beat, Crash Land and last year’s Fault Lines, each of which leave you breathless as the action unfolds at breakneck speed. It’s as if he has taken Tom Petty’s cri de cœur concerning rock music,”Don’t bore us, get to the chorus”, and applies it to those books.

The other strand of his work focuses as much on family drama as crime, and are arguably when his writing is at its most powerful. Certainly I would suggest that Gone Again and The Jump are his most affecting and memorable novels to date. With Breakers, however, he has managed to marry these two strands together as never before, taking the poignant and heartfelt familial drama of the latter and adding the thrills and spills of the former. As such it is the most ‘Doug Johnstone’ book yet, and suggests the best may be yet to come.

Breakers focuses on the life of Tyler, a 17-year-old whose home life is a Daily Mail reader’s’ worst nightmare/wet dream. His incestuous elder siblings use him as their own Artful Dodger when they go to work, which happens to be housebreaking around Edinburgh’s more salubrious areas. Tyler would leave this life, acutely aware as to what he is involved in and carrying the guilt that goes with it, although also acutely aware that those they target are the haves who have more than they could ever need.

But his reason for reluctantly accepting his terrible lot is that he can’t abandon his young sister to the uncertainty of a life with their addict mother, or to the mercy of the social services, a fate which is surely only a phone call away. Johnstone asks serious questions about what can push people to criminal behaviour, the pressures brought to bear, and asks us to consider what would we do in Tyler’s shoes. The answers aren’t easy, and nor should they be.

When a housebreak goes spectacularly wrong Tyler and his family face new threats, from the police, but more worryingly from one of Edinburgh’s most feared criminal families. With the turmoil that is his life just turned up many notches, Tyler picks a fine time to fall in love with the enigmatic Flick who, although living in the same city comes from another world entirely. Yet, as with the better John Hughes’ movies, they find that they have more in common than their backgrounds would suggest. While never trivialising or lessening the impact of the dark and disturbing themes in Breakers, their relationship offers hope and, for Tyler, a shot at redemption.

If you are a fan of crime fiction then Doug Johnstone will always deliver the twists and turns that you are looking for, and there are few writers who do this with the brio he does. However, his writing always marries brutal honesty – and barely concealed anger – with compassion, eschewing simplistic ideas of good and evil, gods and monsters, to confront the more complex reasons why people do what they do. He understands people and how relationships work, and fail, and that very often it is the ties that bind families which can be the hardest to address.

Breakers is published by Orenda Books.

That’s Entertainment: A Review Of David F. Ross’ Welcome To The Heady Heights…

It’s always a risk when a writer leaves well-loved characters and places behind to move on to something new. David F. Ross completed his ‘Disco Days Trilogy’ with 2017’s The Man Who Loved Islandsa fitting end but one which left both writer and reader questioning what he would do next. The answer to that is now with us in the shape of Welcome To The Heady Heights, (Orenda Books) and from the opening chapter it is clear that everyone can relax, sit back, and enjoy.

It’s a novel which gets to the heart of ’70’s Glasgow, capturing, and revelling in, the city’s wit, wisdom and widoes, and using them to examine human frailty and institutional corruption at its worst. Corporation busconductor Archie Blunt is a man with a mission, a proud Glaswegian who understands the city and those who bide there, and is glad to do so. When he find himself out of work and, at the age of 52, running out of time, he feels that life is in danger of passing him by. The one thing he has going for him is that he knows where the bodies are buried and who has dirt on their shoes, and starts to realise that such knowledge may be his best hope.

This set-up allows David Ross to turn his ever-so-dark humour and coruscating eye to the second city of the Empire and the decade of flares and Findus Crispy Pancakes, and it proves to be the perfect pairing. For those who are already a fan of his writing they will be familiar with the way he uses comedy, and often controversy, to examine and comment on matters serious. While having a ball with his memorable array of characters running amok, a central theme is the systemic abuse of minors by members, often well-loved, of the apparently respectable establishment, particularly with regard to the entertainment industry.

As much outraged as outrageous, you can’t shake the feeling that Ross writes in part to vent anger and frustration at the darkness and desperation of some people’s lives, and at those who would take advantage of them – often without a second thought. And while there is clear commentary on the highly-publicised sex scandals of Savile, Glitter, Clifford, et al., more current concerns are broached such as the continued march of celebrity culture, the myth that we are all due ’15 minutes of fame’, and how the spate of TV talent shows continue to exploit the young and vulnerable.

Archie becomes the driver to Hank ‘Heady’ Hendricks, a well-known TV presenter who, it quickly becomes clear, will never turn down the chance to debase and defile when opportunity knocks. He plans, along with other members of the mysterious ‘Circle’, to turn the landmark Great Eastern Hotel, (the infamous drop-in for Glasgow’s homeless and destitute), into the first Heady Hotel, a place to lure the unsuspecting and susceptible.

You may think this premise too outrageous to be believed, but when you consider the actions of those icons named above and their like, and how institutions and officialdom, knowingly and unknowingly, facilitated their terrible desires then, if anything, it is all too believable. These men see themselves as untouchable, above the law.

It is this hubris that Archie seeks to exploit, using the knowledge he has to help promote his hastily formed boy-band, The High Five – ‘Satan’s Bagpipes’ being sadly rejected as a name. This is his last chance of becoming a success, someone of whom his father could be proud, a desire which leads him to make a series of questionable decisions. As the stakes for everyone get higher the pace quickens and the tension ramps up to such an extent that you are left breathless by the end.

As evocative of the ’70s as Alvin Stardust riding a Chopper, Welcome To The Heady Heights is where those well-known Williams, Connolly and McIlvanney, meet. Ross uses Glasgow’s infamous No Mean City reputation as the backdrop to a story which lifts the lid on the worlds of showbuisness and politics and finds what lies beneath rotten. It’s one of the most thoroughly and unapologetically enjoyable novels you’ll read this year – riotous, courageous, and laugh-out-loud funny. It’s also gritty, gallus and Glaswegian to its core – with Welcome To The Heady Heights David F. Ross has given us a novel to revel in.

*This review is part of the Welcome To The Heady Heights Blog Tour, and you can read what other people think by visiting the blogs and websites mentioned below…