I discovered Doug Johnstone a couple of years ago when his 2014 novel The Dead Beat arrived unexpectedly in my mailbox. I absolutely loved it, and last year read The Jump, which was completely different but equally good, and the brilliant but disturbing Gone Again. And now we have his latest, Crash Land. It's a slimmer volume than the others - 265 pages, with very large margins! But it packs quite a punch.
The novel is set in Orkney, on the large island known to the inhabitants as Mainland, and begins in the airport at Kirkwall. Finn, aged 21, is waiting for a flight that will take him back to Scotland. He's been visiting his beloved grandmother, who raised him on the island when both his parents died. The flight is delayed by fog and Finn falls into an increasingly drunken conversation with beautiful, rather mysterious Maddie, a woman in her thirties. They are watched rather sullenly by four oil-rig workers, on their way home for Christmas, one of whom has tried unsuccessfully to chat up Maddie. When the flight finally takes off, Finn and Maddie sit together, obviously drawn together. But when Finn comes back from the toilet,
Oil Guy was sitting in Finn's seat. He was leaning into Maddie, his hand on her arm, speaking under his breath. Maddie tried to pull away, her body squeezed against the window. He stroked her cheek and she squirmed.
Finn starts to try to persuade the man to leave her alone, but he's aggressive, and before they know it a fight develops, which is broken up by the flight attendant. The pilot decides to return to the airport for security reasons, but before they can land the plane gets into difficulties and a horrific crash ensues, in which all but a handful of the crew and passengers are killed. Finn survives, and so does Maddie, but in the chaos following the crash she disappears. Finn, confused and traumatised, and under investigation by the police, returns to his grandmother's house. Then he gets a text from Maddie -- she's in hiding and needs him to help her escape.
Well - I said this was quite a short novel but my goodness does it pack a lot into its relatively small number of pages. Maddie uses every bit of her considerable sexuality to seduce and manipulate Finn, but fails to fully explain her reasons for wanting to get off the island. Then her husband is found to have been murdered, and Maddie is the obvious suspect, though she absolutely denies responsibility. Finn finds a hiding place for her in an empty house that his gran is keeping an eye on for the absent owners, supplies her with food, and tries to find out the truth of what happened. He also needs to get someone to vouch for him in relation to what happened on the plane, as he's getting the blame for starting the fight.
The plot is almost unbearably tense and exciting, but the real heart of the matter of this novel is the way in which a perfectly normal, rather boring life can spiral completely out of control through almost no fault of one's own. What's more, a number of things are left unresolved at the end - will there be a sequel? Could I bear to read it?
Doug Johnstone is a superbly skilful writer, and this is highly recommended.