Organised Crime: An Interview with Doug Johnstone

The Skinny talks with prolific author Doug Johnstone, who having just published his excellent new crime novel The Dead Beat, is already preparing for the next

Feature by Ceris Aston | 09 Jun 2014

Doug Johnstone’s bio in his latest novel, The Dead Beat, describes him as the author of five previous novels, a freelance journalist, songwriter and musician, with a PhD in nuclear physics. I’m intrigued and, it may be said, slightly intimidated.  Especially due to the fact that it’s my first phone interview, which I confess at the start, asking if I can record the interview – but not on a Walkman, a reference to the protagonist of The Dead Beat and her unnerving first day of work. Johnstone laughs and puts me at ease – “It’s been a while since I’ve interviewed anyone. I once interviewed the guitarist for the Electric Six – I called him up, and he was in the bath. That was awkward.”

The Dead Beat is Johnstone’s sixth novel, set in the familiar streets of present day Edinburgh. Martha Fluke is an intern at The Standard newspaper, where her estranged, recently deceased father worked before her. Moments into her first day on the obituary desk, she receives a devastating phone call which catapults her into a dangerous search for truth. The Dead Beat is certainly gripping, while not a conventional whodunit or thriller, and Johnstone is thoughtful in his discussion of genre. “When you say thrillers people think of shiny airport books… That’s not what I write. I was at Crimefest recently, where I chaired a panel called The Modern Thriller – none of us were traditional thriller writers. I don’t throw red herrings all over the place, that doesn’t really interest me. Plot isn’t just about linking plot points. It has to come from motivation, from what that character would do in these circumstances.

“I’m interested in grabbing people by the balls and dragging them in – seeing if they can make it to the end” - Doug Johnstone

"I couldn’t write an international spy novel or anything like that," he tells me. "I’m just not interested in writing about rich successful people. I write about ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances – I throw as much shit at them as possible and see how they cope.” Perhaps this is what makes Johnstone’s books so terrifyingly plausible. The reader is drawn in, wondering less who the culprit is than how they themselves would respond in the same situation. “I’m not writing escapism – no sci-fi or 19th century romantic novels. I’m not interested in a soft immersive reading experience.” He chuckles, “I’m more interested in grabbing people by the balls and dragging them in – seeing if they can make it to the end.”

Johnstone’s characters are ordinary enough people who wouldn’t seem at all out of place on the real streets of Edinburgh. It’s easy to comprehend the motivations and struggles which shape their lives. Martha, the protagonist of The Dead Beat, suffers from depression and is treated with ECT (‘Please don’t say Cuckoo’s Nest,’ she implores). It’s not the first time that Johnstone has addressed mental health issues in his novels. “While it’s more explicit in this book than it has been in others, I do tend to write about characters who are not particularly in control. I think that the main character in each book has had mental health issues, even if they haven’t been diagnosed. In Hit and Run Billy is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress, but it’s never explicitly stated.” Johnstone is keen to normalise mental illness. Martha isn’t defined by her mental health issues: “It’s not a book about depression, it’s a book about a person who happens to have depression. Everyone knows someone who has suffered from mental health issues – I’m pretty sure I had mild depression for a while. Why not bring it out in the open?”

Since signing with Faber, Johnstone has written a book a year. I ask about how he has achieved this frankly impressive total. He considers the question. “I’m fairly methodical – I sit down each day and try to bash out 1000, 2000 words. I tend to write in short sharp bursts, and I don’t write for too long in a day – it saves the writing getting tired and lumpy. I don’t really believe in writers’ block – I think that’s just laziness.” Johnstone’s self-discipline is clearly paying off – his last novel, Hit and Run, was a Kindle #1 bestseller, and his work has been greatly lauded by both critics and contemporaries. He’s already written his next book for Faber, yet in addition to working on this and promoting The Dead Beat, he’s already “thinking about the following one.”

I have no idea what to expect from Doug Johnstone’s next novels. It really doesn’t matter. I’m counting down the days.

The Dead Beat is out now, published by Faber and Faber