Inverness Book Festival
HOW, wondered one member of the audience at the opening evening of this year’s Inverness Book Festival, does Doug Johnstone stay so cheerful?
A fair point given the number of people who meet untimely ends in his books by their own hands or others’ and a mild obsession with obituaries — an oasis of niceness amid the politics and scandal of your average newspaper — and which inspired his latest book The Dead Beat.
Yet, as Johnstone himself pointed out, he is a pretty contented guy in real life. He only writes about murder and suicide.
However, one reader did tell him that he had ruined Edinburgh’s North Bridge for him after using it as a suicide scene in The Dead Beat.
Perhaps unfairly as North Bridge already has something of a reputation.
Even last week there was a case where someone jumped from the bridge that features on The Dead Beat’s cover.
"He broke his legs, but survived. That’s because he jumped at the wrong bit," Johnstone said, tongue in cheek and brandishing a copy of his book.
"But if he’d read this book..."
Billed by his publisher Faber and Faber as a "contemporary crime writer", it sounded as though the former nuclear physicist was still coming to terms with that label himself.
"When you say crime, people think of police procedurals and much as I read those books and love them, I wouldn’t want to do one myself — it’s too much like hard work," he said.
So instead of grumpy coppers or hard boiled private eyes, the changing rota of characters in Johnstone’s six books to date are, he told interviewer Michael Malone, "people like you and me and everyone else in the room".
The small town boy heading home in debut novel Tombstoning, the whisky loving pals of Smokeheads, the photographer and dad of Gone Again or Martha, the newspaper intern of The Dead Beat, all are the type of folks you might bump into on the street or in the pub.
Johnstone is not a writer who cares about superheroes or clear cut goodies and baddies.
"Really, who cares?" he asked.
"But if you can make seemingly good people do bad things and still make the reader go along with them, then that’s interesting. If you do it right, the reader is saying all the way through: what would I do here?"
Nor is Johnstone one for an Agatha Christie like game of spot the clues.
"Hit and Run is the worst whodunit in the world. You find out who did it on page one," he pointed out.
"I want to know what happens after he’s done it."
Set in the early 1990s, The Dead Beat, according to Johnstone, is his attempt at "historical fiction".
"I was a student in Edinburgh at the time and in loads of grungy bands," he said.
"Part of writing the book was a joke on my friends who were in the same scene as me because now we are a part of history. I’m also quite interested in the relationship between people and music and how it has changed over the last 20 years."
So for someone like 20-year old Martha, a piece of 1980s technology like a Sony Walkman is "like something out of the Stone Age", while the concept of creating a mix tape of favourite songs is completely alien.
In a symbolic moment in the book, one character tapes over that precious music collection for work, youthful enthusiasms lost to the mundane practicalities of earning a living, and Johnstone admitted that was something he had done himself.
Still, at least he still has his guitar and signed off from the session with a couple of songs, including the self-explanatory Last Song of The Set.