Doug Johnstone’s previous novel Smokeheads was one hell of a read, a breakneck tear-up of a book following four blokes on a whiskey tour of Islay which descends into sex, drugs and extreme violence. Peat black and shot through with scorching wit, plaudits came in from all angles. So expectations were always going to be high for Hit and Run, his second outing on Faber and Faber’s eclectic and rapidly expanding crime list.
Driving home from a swanky PR do in Edinburgh with his girlfriend and brother – everyone up to the eyeballs on pilfered narcotics and beetroot schnapps – Billy Blackmore drives through a pedestrian. Reporting it will mean lost jobs, arrest, maybe prison, so they do the only logical thing, take the body and dump it over the side of Salisbury Crags.
The next morning, bashed up and hungover, Billy finds himself dragged back to the scene in his professional capacity as trainee crime reporter on The Evening Standard. They’ve got a scoop and the story is going to be huge – Edinburgh’s gangster number one has been found dead at the bottom of the Crags. Frank Whitehouse wasn’t the kind of man to commit suicide so that only leaves murder and the police have plenty of suspects. The Mackies, a rival crime family looking to expand; Frank’s psychotic brother Dean; or maybe the widow Adele, a bong-hitting femme fatale who soon has Billy’s balls nestled in the palm of her hand.
Frank Whitehouse isn’t the only person who took a knock in the crash though and as Billy’s professional reputation is shooting up his personal life is fracturing. He is dogged by guilt about leaving the scene of the crime, and dosed up against the injuries which have got him passing out and smelling smoke. The closer he gets to Adele the more conflicted he becomes. But there’s no time to reflect on any of that because the story has to be written and if Billy backs out of his scoop now how’s that going to look?
Johnstone has written an elegant explosion of that ‘what if’ moment which starts when someone gets behind the wheel drunk. It’s something that happens all the time, and that’s genuinely scary. If that all sounds a bit po-faced I can assure you the book isn’t. Yes, it’s dark and brutal as you would expect from Johnstone, stuffed with drugs, violence and some rather disturbing sex, but it’s also very funny. Johnstone has a great ear for banter, and the relationship between Billy and his mentor Rose is really quite touching.
I absolutely tore through Hit and Run. Johnston knows how create pace and thrust in a book, his prose is crisp, his characterisation pin-sharp and even when he’s handling a classic noir plotline like this his journalistic sensibilities keep everything credible. Scottish crime fiction is a tough playground right now but with Hit and Run Doug Johnstone proves he can hold his own with the best of them.
This review first appeared at Crime Fiction Lover