When it comes to high-octane psychological thrillers, Scottish writer Doug Johnstone knows how to deliver. I've read two of his novels — Smoke Heads (2011) and Hit & Run (2012) — and thoroughly enjoyed both. His latest novel, Gone Again, is another fine example of his raw, edgy and fast-paced narrative style.
A missing wife
The story, which is set in Edinburgh, revolves around a newspaper photographer, Mark Douglas, whose wife, Lauren, goes missing. Lauren was supposed to pick up their six-year-old son, Nathan, from school, but she never turned up.
Mark is out on assignment — photographing a pod of whales stranded in the waters off Portobello Beach — when Nathan's school principal calls him to break the news.
At first, Mark thinks Lauren might have got side-tracked at work — she has a high-powered job in a real estate company — and simply forgot. But when she never answers her mobile or responds to her voicemail, Mark begins to suspect that something isn't quite right. Has she run away? Or has someone done her harm?The second time she's disappeared
But this isn't the first time Lauren has gone missing. Not long after Nathan's birth, she disappeared for several weeks, which makes Mark wonder if history is merely repeating itself. If he keeps telling Nathan that his mother has simply gone on a work trip, perhaps when she eventually returns he'll be none the wiser. But how long can you keep lying to an inquisitive six-year-old?
In Mark's case, pretty much for as long as it takes. His relationship with Nathan is one of the novel's strengths. In fact, Johnstone captures the joys and frustrations of parenthood so well that it's easy to think you're reading a gentle domestic drama — albeit tinged with a generous dose of paranoia.
When things really kick into action — about 50 pages from the end — it comes as quite a shock. The explosive finale, complete with Johnstone's trademark Tarantino-like violence, is a little crazy but that's largely a failing of the genre (in which all loose ends need to be tied up in dramatic fashion) rather than the author's. In other words, it comes with the territory and doesn't necessarily detract from the overall entertainment value of the novel.
Beautifully controlled reveals
In terms of narrative pacing, Gone Again is exceptionally good — the chapters are short, the writing is tight — but it is the beautifully controlled reveals that make this such a glorious page turner. Johnstone delivers a steady drip feed of information that makes you question Mark's version of events all along the way — is his marriage with Lauren all that he says it is? What secrets do they have? And why are the police so hesitant to get involved?
I enjoyed the emotionally charged storyline even if I wasn't entirely convinced by the over-the-top dénouement. But this is a novel filled with moments of genuine tenderness, genuine fear and genuine shock — perfect fodder for those who like their psychological thrillers with a bit of bite to them.
Gone Again will be published in ebook form in the UK tomorrow and paperback on 7 March.