Who’d be a journalist it’s murder

Doug Johnstone
Doug Johnstone
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WHO in their right mind would be a journalist these days? Hacking scandals, privacy rows and illegal payments, never mind an industry squeezed by too little advertising and readers lured from newsprint to webpage.

And then, just as the profession is under quite enough pressure thank you very much, along comes an Edinburgh evening newspaper hack, spaced out of his head on free booze and stolen hospital drugs. He doesn’t go down the phone hacking route though. No, he goes off and smashes his mum’s old Nissan into the biggest crime lord in town before ditching the lifeless body in bushes and speeding off into the dark night, hoping no-one’s noticed.

“I know . . . sorry about that,” laughs author Doug Johnstone, who, with a journalism background of his own really should know better than pour oil on already troubled waters.

“When I first had the idea, I thought to myself ‘OK, I have a bit of experience in this area. Write about what you know’. And I’ve lived here for 20 years, it’s the place I know best in the world. I’d be mad not to use that experience and knowledge.”

Not that he has direct experience of the seedier elements of his fourth Scottish-based novel, Hit and Run, a “tartan noir” thrill ride that kicks off with the unfortunate road accident in the shadows of Salisbury Crags and wends it way around the city as panic stricken trainee crime reporter Billy Blackmore wrestles with his guilty conscience and, much to his discomfort, the news story he finds himself covering.

It is, of course, all in the name of fiction. But if you’d need to be slightly mad to be a journalist these days, isn’t it equally insane to even attempt to muscle in on the already bustling Edinburgh crimewriting scene?

What about something less tricky . . . less controversial . . . a bit easier? Nuclear physics maybe?

“No way am I going back to that,” laughs the 41-year-old, who was, indeed, a nuclear physicist, who got up in the morning and went to work at Marconi/BAe Systems and went home wondering if there was something else he should be doing.

He had lasted for four years - longer if you count the time spent studying physics at Edinburgh University followed by an unsuccessful spell jobhunting and then a return to university to do a brain-bashing PhD in experimental nuclear physics.

No wonder by the time work beckoned, Johnstone was already nearly burnt out.

“Couldn’t stand it,” he groans. “I don’t think I could handle being back in an office, surrounded by people talking, the noise. I’m pretty used to not having other people around now, couldn’t go back to it.”

He quit the day job, took on some freelance journalism – he’s regularly found in print reviewing other people’s books – and set about forging a bright new career in fiction.

Now his busy days revolve around writing well acclaimed novels – Hit and Run follows Smokeheads, The Ossians and Tombstoning, all gritty, dark efforts that have gained plaudits from the likes of fellow authors Irvine Welsh and Chris Brookmyre – and doing the dishes.

“My wife, Trish, has a proper job, working real hours,” he explains. “Our kids, Aidan and Amber, are seven and three years old, so I’m a househusband.

“I do the cooking, the cleaning, the school run and the swimming classes. I don’t get much work done when the kids are at home, so I work around them.

“But it focuses the mind when you know you have to get something done before the kids come home.”

And so might plunging into a crowded marketplace where books and publishing – like the newspapers Johnstone regularly works for – are being buffeted by the winds of change, where success often depends on getting on to the front table at the door of Waterstones and a “Richard and Judy” book club stamp on the cover.

Never mind hard copies, the march of the ebook is also changing the world of publishing, throwing up risks of piracy and making it even tougher for authors to get their book noticed.

“I try not to think about sitting down and writing a book that I think will be marketable – I’d go mental if I thought like that,” he says. “You have to be pragmatic. I don’t think about the business side of it all when I’m writing. I think you just have to switch that side off and just write, otherwise you just get bogged down.”

Hit and Run, he adds, takes him into fresh yet familiar territory. The scenes are set in the streets, houses and offices of the capital, and while murderous evening newspaper reporters are hopefully pure fiction, there’s a warm familiarity to the characters.

So is this one rogue hack who eventually faces justice? Will his evening paper soon find itself without a trainee crime reporter?

“It does get pretty dark towards the end,” he adds, refusing to reveal the fate that awaits this particular law-breaking journalist. “I’m not interested in heroes or villains, good guys or bad guys.

“It’s about every day people like you or me or anyone else who makes a bad decision which throws them into extreme circumstances.

“It’s ordinary people in extreme circumstances.”

- Hit and Run by Doug Johstone is published by Faber and Faber, £12.99, and will be launched at Blackwell book shop, South Bridge on 15 March. Tickets are free, available from www.blackwells.co.uk