Doug Johnstone is one of the rising stars of Scottish thriller writing, his novels characterised by their realistic, nuanced portrayals or ordinary people in extraordinary situations. His latest, Gone Again, adds a new dimension – its protagonist is a father of a young boy and whose wife disappears in mysterious circumstances. Laura Lippman, the author of the successful Tess Monaghan novels, has recently produced And When She Was Good, a murder mystery whose protagonist is a single mother by day, and a high-class escort by night. Both writers come today to discuss the significance of family and parenthood in their work.
Lippman's novel was inspired by the question: "what kind of job would you need to be a single mother in an expensive suburb?” Her protagonist Heloise has a 9 year-old son, but “there is only one person who knows the totality of her.” Running her escort service is a delicate balancing act, thrown into jeopardy when Heloise becomes involved in the investigation into the death of one of her fellow escorts. It's a fascinating and unique approach to the traditional thriller's structure and thematic concerns. “People have never wanted to know more about the research for any of the other novels I've written,” Lippman jokes, but far from being prurient or exploitative, the novel is an attempt to delve into what Johnstone calls the realistic, “quotidian stuff” of parenthood in the context of a taut crime novel.
Johnstone, too, is keen to point out that the thematic focus of Gone Again is not the thriller, although the thriller elements are incredibly taut, built upon a series of unfolding revelations and payoffs that keep the reader gripped on every page. “The book isn't really about the missing person,” he explains. “It's about the relationship Mark has with his son.” Johnstone has always been dissatisfied with unrealistic protagonists who are too cool, too hard, too rich. Or as he puts it, “I don't give a fuck about Jack Reacher... all my books are about poor losers.”
Both authors are parents in real life. “I always resented people who told me: 'Having a child will change the way you write,'” Lippman reveals, “but it's true.” Making their protagonists parents allowed them to subtly shade their moral choices, to break conventional reality in defence of their fictional offspring. As Lippman says, “When it comes to your kid, you're pretty ruthless.” This is illustrated nicely in Johnstone's reading, as he describes a scene where Mark punches the mother of a school bully in the face. An audience member comments that the scene makes him deeply uncomfortable, and Johnstone grins: “Good.”
It's all to do with Johnstone's belief that “it's not enough to put your protagonist up a tree, you have to throw rocks at him while he tries to get down.” This adage, given to him by his agent, gets to the heart of the matter – parents, as protagonists, are incredibly rich sources of conflict and anxiety, and so they are perfect for thriller plots – or as Lippman puts it: “We write people smaller than life.”