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Hit & Run, by Doug Johnstone

Driving home from a party with his girlfriend and brother, all of them drunk and high on stolen pills, Billy Blackmore accidentally hits a stranger in the night. In a panic, they drive off. The next day Billy finds he has to cover the story for the local paper. Turns out the dead man was Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord. As Billy struggles with what he’s done, he is sucked into a nightmare of guilt, retribution and violence. From the author of the highly acclaimed Smokeheads, Hit & Run is another pitch-black psychological thriller. Taut and pared down, in the tradition of the great noir novels, it is a dizzying portrait of a young man’s freefall towards psychosis.

At the time of writing this review, Hit & Run is the number one book in Amazon’s Kindle Chart, which is no mean feat. So what is all the fuss about? Actually, before I get onto the contents of the novel, I’d just like to draw attention to the book’s stunning cover, which is not done justice by the thumbnail. It’s a large paperback with beautiful embossing and a really atmospheric image, so kudos to Faber for getting this crucial element of the book exactly right.

As for the appeal of the novel itself, it’s a great psychological study of a young man falling apart after committing a very serious crime. It’s also one of those books that is achingly trendy, with youthful characters, a sexy Edinburgh setting and a simple but gripping plot. Talking of simplicity, the prose is very simple and straight-forward, with no overblown stylistic flourishes or wordplay, and the narrative is unburdened by lengthy explorations of Big Ideas. This means that Hit & Run is the sort of deliciously addictive thriller that the reader can race through in one or two sittings.

I thought it was a great book. I want to say that from the outset, because in this piece I’m going to look closely at some of the elements that I thought were less successful in the novel, and I don’t want that to be misconstrued as me saying that this is a bad book. It’s not. It’s a brilliant does-what-it-says-on-the-tin thriller.

The main reason I rate Hit & Run so highly is actually not because of that gripping plot – which though compelling is not wildly original. I think Hit & Run is great because of its central character, Billy Blackmore. Billy Blackmore is an intriguing protagonist, a modern-day (Scottish) Raskolnikov, capable of cruelty and idiocy but basically a decent person. Half the time Billy’s a sympathetic character and the other half of the time he’s maddening, but he’s always fascinating. I really enjoyed the way that Billy interacted with his doctor brother Charlie, his girlfriend Zoe, and his boss, the wonderfully tough crime reporter, Rose. Billy’s concept of family, and the significance of the loss of family, was a theme that was allowed to flourish in this fast-paced thriller, and the book was all the more interesting for that.

Moving on to the niggles: 1) There is a feeling of self-conscious “coolness” in the book. It’s hard to explain, but if this novel was a person it would be a nineteen-year-old bad boy with sun-bleached hair, a faded leather jacket and a very fast Japanese motorcycle. I’ve been trying to understand this feeling and I think it comes from the fact that all of our main protagonists – and therefore the people that the reader is being asked to identify with –  are young, attractive, (e.g. on the first page Billy’s girlfriend is described as “Beautiful, cool Zoe. Black fringe, pale skin, hippie-chic dress”) risk-taking twenty-somethings with great jobs and devil-may-care attitudes. They drink too much with no thought for tomorrow and they self-medicate with fistfuls of stolen drugs without a pang of guilt. They are like Renton’s posher cousins from the other side of the tracks.

But as I thought more about it, I realised that if the plot of Hit & Run is to be plausible, then the people in the car, intoxicated on free booze and stolen drugs, have to be risk-taking devil-may-care types, otherwise they wouldn’t put themselves in such a precarious situation. The protagonists of this kind of story most likely have to be young too, as youth and recklessness do tend to go hand in hand. These characters also need good jobs to up the stakes, and to provide the whiff of scandal if their guilt is exposed, since in western society people are often less surprised – and less interested – if a workman (or dustman, or doorman, or any other kind of profession with “man” in the title) commits a crime than if a white collar worker does the same. So while it might have been refreshing if one of the main characters in Hit & Run was old, skint, blue collar, or had a personality disorder, that wouldn’t necessarily fit with this plot. These people need to be young, fun and reckless. It’s a quandary and no mistake, and so it is that interesting characterisation loses out a little bit to the demands of the storyline. This trade-off does tend to be a marker of some of the American thrillers I read, so I don’t think Hit & Run is particularly unique in this brand of literary pragmatism.

2) The second niggle is the rather implausible storyline featuring a lost collie called Rebus. I won’t give away spoilers but nothing about this sub-plot rang true. I think it might have been there for shock factor, but I found it so unlikely as to be alienating. However, one has to bear in mind that I am the owner of a border collie, and I am therefore predisposed to disbelieving storylines that culminate in man on collie violence.

Still, despite the caveats mentioned above, I am glad to recommend Hit & Run as a very slick work of crime fiction that grabs the reader by the guts from its very first scene and doesn’t loosen its grip until the final page, and perhaps not even then.

If we had a rating system, Hit & Run would get a glorious 4 out of 5 stars.

Paperback: 272 pages, Faber and Faber (1 Mar 2012), ISBN-10057127045X

3 comments on “Hit & Run, by Doug Johnstone

  1. Jackie
    April 25, 2012

    Really thoughtful review of a book I bet many would just consider an escapist thriller. I like how you delved into the coolness factor, the type of people involved & how it’s enjoyable, despite not being an original storyline. The collie subplot worries me though. I wonder why they added that?
    I’ve found that Faber is usually rather good about their covers, they must have a creative art department.

  2. Lisa
    April 25, 2012

    Thanks, Jackie. I’m not sure about the inclusion of the collie subplot, as it seemed to ignore the way that animal shelters do business, as well as the simple measures taken by the owners of lost dogs to ensure that their pets are returned. I think it was probably in there to escalate the drama (fair enough) and possibly because modern thrillers seem determined to outdo each other when it comes to gore and shock factor. I don’t know. It is a minor part of a book that is on the whole very well written, pacy and entertaining.

  3. Pingback: Hit & Run press round-up « doug johnstone

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This entry was posted on April 25, 2012 by in Entries by Lisa, Fiction: crime, Fiction: thriller.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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