After the drink fuelled violence of Smokeheads and Hit and Run’s sexy, pill-popping rough and tumble Doug Johnstone was my go-to author for manchild hijinks, but his latest novel Gone Again signals an intriguing change of focus as he shifts into the domestic sphere.
Photographer Mark Douglas is vainly trying to snap a pod of whales on Portobello beach when the school calls to tell him his wife hasn’t arrived to collect their young son Nathan. Initially it’s just a minor annoyance, nothing to worry about; Lauren’s job at an upmarket Edinburgh estate agents is demanding enough to cause these little derailments, so he picks Nathan up and takes him home, but as the afternoon draws into evening and Lauren’s phone goes unanswered Mark begins to realise something is seriously wrong.
His immediate thought isn’t murder – as you might expect in a crime novel – but that Lauren has abandoned them. She’s done it before, just after Nathan was born, suffering from crippling post natal depression, and Mark suspects that her current pregnancy may have tipped her over the edge again. As the days go by he becomes less sure of that explanation though and with the police unwilling to investigate Mark begins to delve into the parts of Lauren’s life she’s kept hidden from him. Through it all he struggles to maintain a tenuous normality for Nathan, while making it clear to the police that his own history of aggression – rearing it’s head again – has nothing do to with Lauren’s disappearance, but when his detective work sparks more violence Mark is forced to act.
The first half of the book is a heartbreaking examination of how a disappearance affects those left behind, the wild swings between hope and fear, the accusations and recriminations which get thrown around between family members, and at the core of the story is the relationship between Mark and Nathan. Closely observed, picking out the seemingly trivial routines and jokes which bond a father and son, achingly poignant in places, this is some of the best writing Johnstone has done and illustrates why he is so highly regarded. The second half of Gone Again, when the crime element of the book takes over, is more typical of his previous work, brisk, violent, whip through the pages stuff, and it builds to a perfectly satisfying end.
I must admit I was surprised at how radical a departure Gone Again was from Johnstone’s usual hard and fast crime writing but the shift towards a nuanced, slow burning psychological thriller has proved hugely successful, and I’d love to see more from him in this vein.