The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Fictional Characters. If such an organisation existed then you must assume that by now they would have been taking a keen interest in Doug Johnstone. His track record in this regard is not good – all of his three previous novels have put his main characters through some kind of torment. But in terms of cruelty to character, Doug’s latest novel ‘Hit and Run’ manages to outdo everything that’s gone before.
Billy Blackmore is a trainee crime reporter with the Evening Standard in Edinburgh. He also likes his pills and his booze. Driving home from a night out with his girlfriend Zoe and brother Charlie in the car, he knocks a man down whilst seriously under the influence of the drink and the drugs. The bpassengers persuade Billy to leave the body and the next day the man turns out to be one of Edinburgh’s premier crime lords. And guess who’s sent by his paper to report on the death?
‘Hit and Run’ mirrors the taut, lean storytelling of its predecessor ‘Smokeheads’. There’s only a brief introduction to the characters before, bang!, you’re dropped right into the middle of the story with the obligatory car crash.
But for some reason I found it a slightly lighter read than ‘Smokeheads’. Emphasis on the word slightly. Perhaps because most nights Billy finds a bed to go home to there’s not quite the same feeling of dread turning over each page but ‘Hit and Run’ is still every bit as compelling as ‘Smokeheads’.
Don’t for a moment think that, home comforts or not, Billy gets off lightly. Oh no. On the contrary you will regularly reach a point in the story that you think MUST be the nadir for the junior reporter – only for things to then get even worse. And this happens more often than is surely reasonable for any fictional character.
Which brings us back round to the SSPCFC. The evidence is clear – Johnstone treats his characters with sadistic regard for their well being and happiness.
But when that cruelty hearing does inevitably come, I’m prepared to offer a plea in his defence on account of the moral element to his storytelling. Sure, bad things, very bad things, do happen to the characters but, in most cases, they’ve actually done something to deserve it. Billy Blackmore has, after all, killed a man through his own recklessness. And he knows it.
Ultimately the question to be answered in ‘Hit and Run’ isn’t so much will Billy get away with it but rather does he want to?
I’m not telling but start reading ‘Hit and Run’ and you’ll be desperate to find out.