Author of the Month

Name: Doug Johnstone

First Novel: Tombstoning

Most Recent Book: Crash Land

'A true master of the art of gripping story-telling.'

Sitting in the departure lounge of Kirkwall Airport, Finn Sullivan just wants to get off Orkney. But then he meets the mysterious and dangerous Maddie Pierce, stepping in to save her from some unwanted attention, and his life is changed forever. Soon, Finn is caught up with a murder investigation and in the frame for terrorist atrocities. How did it all blown up when all Finn was trying to do was being chivalrous and trying to get home to Edinburgh?

Johnstone’s novels tend to buck the trend and aren’t books like doorsteps. For me, that is an added attraction. I know that there will be no mucking about – I will be slung on to the ride without a second thought. And that is what Johnstone does with ‘Crash Land’. Within 250 pages, Johnstone piles in a lot of events along with a lot of emotional baggage for Finn to sift through.

I felt Johnstone brought Finn to life. Finn’s disregard for his girlfriend just to flirt with Maddie, an older, good-looking woman is typical of a twenty-one year old who is ruled by his groin rather than his heart. You get the sense that life isn’t exciting enough for him and he doesn’t want to grow old before his time. With the sudden death of his mother, Finn feels abandoned, although not by his mother’s own choosing. There were times when I could have quite happily slapped Finn for being so spineless, but towards the end he manages to claw back a little honour.

The book is from the perspective of Finn, so Maddie is always one step removed and we don’t really get to know much about her. What we do know is highly suspicious and could merely be a tapestry of lies. There is a very interesting scene towards the end when two people both deny the murders. You know one had to have done it, but which? It is that underlying uncertainty which Johnstone brings to his prose. You feel as though you can see the truth, but can’t quite make it out under the shimmering, shifting surface of lies and denial. Maddie is a bit like Highsmith’s creation, Tom Ripley, but in heels. Amoral and with an instinct to fight her way out of any corner, Maddie is only about one thing – herself.

There are tons of issues here from survivor guilt to grief to wanting more out of life… but what is it one wants out of life? Johnstone’s drama is all played out on the island of Orkney. Johnstone’s novel is a little like a love letter to a cruel mistress - beautiful, but at times unforgiving and harsh – similar to the Orkney landscape.

‘Crash Land’ took me totally by surprise as I didn’t know where he was going to take me. The result is shocking and kept me glued to those pages until the final one had been turned. A true master of the art of gripping story-telling.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) In ‘Hit and Run’ it was a car and in ‘Crash Land’ it is a plane. Do you enjoy pitching your main protagonist head first in to a drama due to an incident beyond their control?
Well I like that idea of having main characters struggling in the wake of extraordinary circumstances, definitely, that’s a mainstay in my books. But the incidents in ‘Hit and Run’ and ‘Crash Land’ aren’t entirely outside their control, are they? In both cases there is a grey area of blame, and both characters, rightly or wrongly, feel at least partly responsible for the shitstorm that is coming at them.

For ‘Crash Land’ I was very interested in survivor guilt, when people live through very traumatic events in which others have died. I read a few books on the subject, closely related to post-traumatic stress, of course, but with added guilt and other weird feelings mixed in – freedom, feelings of defeating fate, being immortal. It’s a very strange and complex mix of stuff, and part of the impetus for ‘Crash Land’ was to look at all of that in the framework of a thriller.
2) Finn is under the influence of Maddie, with or without alcohol during the book, but discovers his backbone near the end of the novel. Was this deliberate?
It’s interesting that you think he finds his backbone – I’m not so sure. At least, I wanted it to be open to question. See my earlier answer about survivor guilt, Finn is a mess straight after the crash, emotionally and physically, and while he maybe is beginning to sort himself out by the end and try to take charge of his own destiny, by that time events have moved on and it’s not that simple.

But I am always interested in how characters might change under immense stress. We all like to think that we’d be the hero – that we’d run back into the burning building and save the baby, but the truth is that most of us wouldn’t do that, I fear. The truth is always somewhere in between, of course, we’re all heroes and villains at different times in our lives, we all veer from being in control to losing it. The course that Finn plots in ‘Crash Land’ hopefully reflects that mix of stuff.
3) Landscape is very much a part of your novels. In ‘Smokeheads’ it was Islay and in ‘Crash Land’ it feels like a love letter to Orkney despite your descriptions of light and shade. Why did you choose Orkney for your location and what was it about the island that attracted you to feature it in your book?
I first visited Orkney twelve years ago, and even back then, before I was a published author, I knew I wanted to set a book there – so that’s been swirling around in my mind for over a decade! Sometimes it takes that long for things to coalesce. I love remote and rural Scotland – I grew up in a small town up the east coast so I know the landscape well, but Orkney is something special again. I’m not spiritual at all, but there is a resonance on the islands, the sense that the past and the present remain strongly intermingled, and I always thought that would add depth to any book if you used it correctly.

So I went back to Orkney to research, wandered around in the dismal January weather, soaked up the atmosphere (and got soaked!), tried to work out how to interlink the incredible landscape and history with a modern day, contemporary thriller. So Finn, as he’s going through all this shit in his life, reverts back to strange, pagan ideas, communing with the spirits, talking to Neolithic skulls, feeling the history at every turn.
4) My favourite characters were Ingrid and Janet who have grown up in this community where, as you say, ‘everybody knows everybody’s business’ - and yet there are some secrets that are kept. For those of us not used to a small community, could you give us a small insight to life on Orkney?
Well, I’ve never lived on Orkney, but I grew up in Arbroath, which is small town enough for anyone. The population of Orkney is tiny really – Kirkwall, the capital, is only 9,000 people – and there is so much space, yet everyone really does seem to know everyone else’s business. It’s that claustrophobic island community thing, they feel apart and separate from anywhere else. In the case of Orkney, they feel apart from the rest of Scotland, in fact many don’t consider themselves Scottish at all.

There’s always a dichotomy in such places for the next generation growing up. The things that make teenagers and young adults want to leave a place are often the same things that see them heading back after experiencing the wider world. The strong sense of community is always a double-edged sword. I’m glad you liked Ingrid and Janet, they were a lot of fun to write about. It’s been a hard life, especially for Ingrid, but that life experience brings with it a real no-bullshit quality that you see a lot in older Orcadians.
5) Maddie is wonderfully drawn, but at the same time stays elusive to the reader. Did you mean to leave so much ambiguity about Maddie?
Absolutely, 100%. I was playing around with the femme fatale trope, which is not something I’ve really done in my books so far. I absolutely love the classic American noir canon, where femme fatales feature heavily, and I wanted to write something similar, but try to make Maddie a realistic modern woman at the same time.

The story is told completely from Finn’s point of view, so we never get inside Maddie’s head, all we know about her is what Finn knows, and I found that really interesting to play about it. She is playing him at times, clearly, and he knows it, but at other times I hope it’s less clear whether she’s stringing him along for her own uses or whether she’s actually falling for him too.

And as to Maddie’s guilt or otherwise at the end of the book – I really didn’t want to resolve that at all. I think it’s more interesting to let the reader make up his or her own mind about it. I hope readers agree!
6) Your novels are instances of people’s lives rather than a series. What is it that attracts you to writing about new people for each novel rather than a series character?
I love reading series, but there are a couple of problems for them, for me in my writing anyway. For one thing, I put my main characters through so much shit in one book, that if you tried to do three, four, five books with the same person, they would just end up a total basket case! Similarly, I think I would find the weight of all that baggage, all that backstory, too much to write about. I know plenty of writers who do it brilliantly, but it’s not for me.

And writing about new characters every time is so refreshing. When you start a book with a bunch of new people, you’re finding out about that along the way as well. They change over the course of the book, and over the redrafting and redrafting, and I love that experience, that you’ve just made a brand new fictional being out of thin air every time.
7) For writers who are just starting out on their ‘novel journey’, what one piece of advice would you give?
It’s so banal, but just write. Write, write, write, get stuff down on paper. Write a first draft like you’re hooped up on goofballs and jumping out a plane on a parachute jump with flask of single malt in your pocket and a steak dinner waiting for you when you land. Don’t give a flying fuck about whether it’s shit or not – rest assured, it is shit. First drafts are always shit, that’s the whole point of them. Write about your obsessions, your passions, the secret shit that scares you about yourself and everyone else.

And then, once you have something, then you can really get to work. Less is more, cut, cut, cut, edit, edit, edit, don’t be afraid to rewrite everything from scratch, cut the best bits, cut anything flabby or pointless or boring.

That’s probably more than one piece of advice, isn’t it?
8) Are you a fan of crime fiction in general? What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you and would take with you to a desert island?
Oh yes, a huge fan of crime fiction. I tend to like best the stuff that’s out in the margins of the genre a little bit. I love everything James Sallis has written, so I would take one of his with me, maybe Others of My Kind. I also completely adore all of Megan Abbott’s books, and I think my favourite one of hers is The Fever. And for a third book, let’s take a classic – James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity – perfect plotting, character, dialogue, description, pacing, style and prose, all in around 100 pages.