Writer Paul Johnston expects fifth cancer fight

aul Johnston has returned to world of his futuristic Quint Dalrymple novels for his latest book, Heads or Hearts. Picture: Toby Williams
aul Johnston has returned to world of his futuristic Quint Dalrymple novels for his latest book, Heads or Hearts. Picture: Toby Williams
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CRIME writer Paul Johnston stares death in the face with every chapter as he takes his gritty characters to the darkest and most frightening of places.

Their plight – however gruesome – is, of course, pure fiction.

And in a cruel twist in the tale, here in the real world it’s Edinburgh-born Paul who is living dangerously.

For in the past few years Paul has taken on and beaten no fewer than four different kinds of potentially life threatening cancer.

And a rare genetic blip means he’s on constant watch for what could be the fifth.

“I have this malformed gene,” reveals Paul, best known for his hugely popular Quint Dalrymple series, which is set in a futuristic independent state of Edinburgh. “It means I’m more susceptible to any cancer. It’s not brilliant.”

It means Fettes College-educated Paul – who blew up the school in one of his early novels – is always on the lookout for signs and symptoms of what could be yet another debilitating cancer battle.

Not just that. He also carries with him the constant worry that he may have passed on the rogue gene to his own young children, sentencing them to a future cursed by cancer.

“There’s a 50 per cent chance they have the same gene,” he explains.

It means that while the characters he creates on the page often come to a sticky and uncomfortable end, Paul lives every day acutely aware of a much more real threat, much closer to home.

It began a few years ago after Paul had battled through urological cancer that cost him one kidney and left him fatigued from his chemotherapy.

Paul had thought he was over the worst. But just as doctors confirmed that he had passed the “five years clear” stage, he suddenly realised he felt unwell.

Despite intense checks as part of his ongoing cancer treatment, it turned out that a large tennis ball-sized tumour had taken hold in his bowel.

It meant even more gruelling treatment, yet, incredibly, Paul still managed to write book after book, each one rich in blood, gore and grim ways to die.

He recovered, but within a couple of years tests to spot early signs of prostate cancer showed worrying results. Because of his cancer history, doctors acted quickly and discovered he needed immediate surgery.

That was two years ago, but even more was to come.

Earlier this year Paul discovered a lump on the back of his head which doctors confirmed was skin cancer. He underwent surgery to, as he says, “dig out” the tumour before being relieved to receive yet another “all clear”.

It was while he was receiving treatment for his second cancer at the Western General that Paul learned a genetic blip meant he was highly vulnerable to various forms of the 

“The consultant felt it was suspicious as bowel cancer and urological cancer don’t normally have a connection,” recalls Paul. “He discovered I have a malformed gene called MSH2.

“My siblings and other relatives were clear. It was just me who was the unlucky one.

“I just have to live with it,” he adds. “You go into fight mode when you get a specific diagnosis, but it’s the times in between that are hard to live with. I just have to get on and keep an eye on things.”

The hardest part, he says, is knowing he may have passed the defective gene on to his children Maggie, aged nine and Alexander, seven. “I’m not happy about it,” he admits. “You feel you are passing a curse down the family tree. It means you can’t look ahead, there’s a sea of unknowing.”

All the more remarkable, then, that over the course of going several rounds with cancer, Paul has rattled out 18 highly acclaimed novels, moved from Edinburgh to Athens and – thanks to the economic meltdown there – moved more recently to the UK, plus won several awards for his writing. Now he’s going back to the future, to revive one of his best known detective characters and bring him back to life in a futuristic, crime-ridden Edinburgh. Paul’s first book, Body Politic, was set in 2020 at a time when territories within Scotland, including Edinburgh, had gained their own independence.

The book featured – along with a destroyed Fettes College which ex-pupil Paul made a point of blowing up – an off-the-wall investigator called Quint Dalrymple.

The futuristic crime novel was so successful that Paul wrote a further four “Quint” novels before moving on to create a series of Greek-based crime novels featuring his character Alex Mavros and then crossing the Atlantic to write about a new detective character, Matt Wells.

However, last year’s referendum vote and the independence debate revived interest in Paul’s fictional Edinburgh of the future and his Quint books. And soon he was being asked to consider reviving a character he thought he had left behind over a decade earlier.

“I thought ‘Blimey, never write off your characters,” he laughs. “I had to go back and read all the books.

“It was weird having been away for so long and then writing again about this futuristic independent city, while knowing the book would come out after the referendum result.”

Paul set his new novel in 2033, when attempts are under way to return the divided nation into a single reconstituted Scotland.

The title, Heads Or Hearts, is a reference to the gruesome murders in the book: “I’m a Hibee and my brother is a Jambo,” he says. “And in previous Quint books, football has been banned and only rugby is allowed.

“Now football has been brought back and there’s a lot of corruption in the Edinburgh premier league. A human heart is found on the centre circle at Tynecastle. Then a head turns up somewhere else.”

The book will be followed later this year by another Quint book, bringing his tally of novels up to 18.

Most were penned in Greece, where he lived from 1987. However, the country’s financial crisis and concern for his children’s future if he remained, means he is now back on UK soil and looking for a new base.

“It was grinding me down,” he says. “When I had prostate cancer three years ago, I had to go to the shop to buy my own surgical stockings and I’ve had to buy my own drugs. One friend had an operation and was told to bring their own towels and toilet paper. It is worse now. People there are ground down, it’s really bad.”

Besides, there are other things to focus on, such as watching for the slightest symptom that might herald another brush with cancer.

“It’s beyond my control,” he adds, referring to the rogue gene. “There’s no point thinking about it. The moment I feel any niggles I get to the doctor. I might sound quite glib, but it has been very difficult for close family members.

“The children aren’t hugely aware of it, they are just seven and nine. But when they are 18 they will go for a gene test. Knowledge is power. I’m sure over the next ten years drugs and treatments will move on.”

Meanwhile, Paul insists he will carry on writing about death and gore. “I hammer away on the keyboard. You have to block things out . . . you lose yourself in it. You go into a zone. That’s all you can do.”

• Heads Or Hearts is out now. It is published by Severn House Publishing and is available on Kindle at £12.95 or hardback

Body of evidence

PAUL Johnston was born in Edinburgh in 1957. His father, Ronald, was a successful thriller writer.

He attended Fettes College a few years under former Prime Minister Tony Blair. He later studied ancient and modern Greek at Oxford University.

Paul worked for shipping companies in London and Belgium before moving to Greece in 1987.

His first Quint Dalrymple novel, Body Politic, a futuristic detective novel set in Edinburgh, was published in 1997.

Another Quint Dalrymple novel, Skeleton Blues, is due to be published in December.

• Find out more at www.paul-johnston.co.uk