crash-landDoug Johnstone’s new thriller, ‘Crash Land’, is an apparently straightforward tale: young man, away from home and girlfriend, meets seductive, slightly older woman, something clicks between them and when older woman is threatened by boorish bloke, young man steps up to defend her and gets into a whole heap of trouble.

What’s fascinating about ‘Crash Land’ is that the ‘straightforward tale’ is in fact a clever, multi-faceted novel full of layers and twists: a tragic plane crash, two murders, the hunt for an elusive killer within the confines of a small island, international drug trafficking and the out-of-kilter relationships among the main characters, are all interwoven by Johnstone in a well-constructed, impeccably timed narrative.

Finn Sullivan is a jewellery design student and an ordinary young man with a sad family history. Finn lost his only parent, his mother Sally, in his late teens, and all he has left is his maternal grandmother Ingrid, living alone on Orkney’s Mainland. She’s as uncompromising as the savage, stunningly beautiful island she lives on, but she loves Finn and he loves her too, and visits her often.

It is the Friday before Christmas, and  Finn is about to fly back to Edinburgh, where he lives with his girlfriend Amy, after one such visit. In the tiny Orkney airport of Kirkwall he meets  Maddie Pierce, and his troubles begin. She’s in her early thirties, at once beautiful and vulnerable, and mysterious to boot. A conversation starts casually and Finn is immediately drawn to Maddie. To the point that he is willing to confront a beefier-than-him oil worker on the way home with a bunch of mates, when said oil worker bestows unwarranted attention on Maddie.

Finn is hooked in after just a few minutes of innocent chatting, during which Maddie reveals nothing about the reason for her trip away from Orkney, and so is the reader. Johnstone gets the dialogue and timing just right, and it’s a breathless read from gin & tonics in the departure lounge to the altercation on board as the oil worker continues to harass Maddie, to the fight between Finn and the oil worker which eventually causes the plane to crash as it tries to land back at Kirkwall, unable to fly on because of the disturbance. Finn and Maddie are among the survivors, and a stricken, injured Finn is left dumbstruck as Maddie walks away from the wreckage before the emergency services arrive.

Finn is rescued but he is in trouble with the police, accused of causing the crash and the death of several passengers and crew members. His troubles deepen once it emerges that he was seemingly close to Maddie Pierce, having talked to her at the airport and sat with her on the plane. It is huge trouble for Finn, because Maddie’s husband is found murdered at home, and now she has gone unaccountably awol.

Johnstone, the author of other fine thrillers such as ‘Gone Again’ and ‘The Jump’, packs so many nuances and observations into the first forty pages or so of the novel as to make it is all but impossible to stop reading. Finn’s and Maddie’s story is ‘normal’, yet the extraordinary and the tragic lurk just over their shoulders, and reach out to strike them and those around them. You hold your breath for them, both gripped and unsettled by the events and by the closely hemmed-in atmosphere in the aftermath of the crash. There’s pain, despair and even violence, as the resentment of the local people who lost  family members in the crash erupts against Finn, the culprit and survivor.

A double game of cat-and-mouse then begins. As Finn tries to recover from his injuries and come to terms with the disaster and, above all, with his surviving it, he is shadowed by the police who are frantically searching for Maddie. And he is in turn shadowed by Maddie herself, who is hiding on the island and desperately trying to get away from it, with Finn the only help at hand.

As I wrote at the outset, the tale Johnstone tells so brilliantly in ‘Crash Land’  is apparently straightforward. Yet it is also a devilishly, satisfyingly complicated one. The reader cannot help but keep wondering: about the motivations that push Maddie to flee and continue to exploit Finn, and about those that cause Finn to help her, jeopardising his relationship with his grandmother and with his girlfriend and, especially, risking his own freedom, sanity and ultimately his life. For the endgame, as it turns out after another murder is committed on the island,  is played for very high stakes indeed.

And in all of this, Finn does remain a wonderfully real character, a down-to-earth, decent  guy whose life has gone off the rails through no fault of his own. It’s impossible not to feel for him and not to want to devour the novel to its startling end.

Doug Johnstone is a very fine thriller writer, and ‘Crash Land’ hides a fascinating, finely-woven plot beneath its seemingly simple structure, the effect heightened by Johnstone’s wonderfully sharp writing: each dialogue, each description is perfectly balanced, spare yet intense, and deadly effective.

Hats off to Doug Johnstone for weaving such a special story, and  giving readers a piercing insight into the lives and minds of normal people faced with frighteningly abnormal circumstances.  We love crime and thriller fiction because it makes us feel safe after all, but ‘Crash Land’ will hit so deep to make you feel very unsafe while reading it. Deliciously so.