Review by Jordan Ogg
Anyone who has flown to one of Scotland’s outer islands will know that, even on a relatively calm day, the journey can bring on the sweats. It's as if the planes are designed to propel unease. I have sipped from tin cans that felt more robust.
I think this is why I found Doug Johnstone’s Orkney-set thriller so affecting. The titular scene is so lucid, I fear I may never fly again.
That said, my inner thrill-seeker thinks Scotland’s airline operators should replace seat safety cards with copies of this novel and make covert films of their passengers’ reactions. Shared on social media, the viral potential could match that of a Trump press conference.
Orkney is famous for its Neolithic archaeology. From stone circles, to chambered cairns, the archipelago offers plenty in the way of mysterious locations for the intrepid crime writer. Johnstone makes reference to the best-known sites as he moves the action between the main towns of Kirkwall and Stromness.
However, in locating much of the story in the lesser-known Tomb of the Eagles, a 5000-year-old crypt, he shows shrewd judgement, presenting the space as a meditative hide for his protagonist.
Johnstone is strong on the elements in this part of the world, particularly when it comes to reflecting the look and feel of the landscape and weather:
"Squals of rain swept across the sky, patches of light and shade dappling the sea like drifting islands. Mainland Scotland sat in the distance like a thick steak, the gristle of Stroma and the Skerries in between."
Lead character, Finn, is named after the protagonist in Beside the Ocean of Time (1994), the last novel published by celebrated Orkney writer George Mackay Brown (1921-1996). Where the latter’s man is a day-dreaming poet, someone you would be blessed to count as a friend, Johnstone’s is, well, a bit of prick.
When not being battered by fuselage, he is prone to getting his head kicked by men who are much bigger than him. Even when you want to root for him, like when he beds the novel’s mysterious seductress, you are left thinking he could have performed better. Still, for all his faults, Finn is compelling as an everyman trying to limp his way through a riddle of lies, murder and revenge.
In plot and style Crashland fits the Scandi-noir mould that has fuelled a lot of the fiction set in rural Scotland in recent years. It is a formula particularly ripe for TV adaptation. Anne Cleeves’ relatively placid Shetland-based series has translated into BBC success, and Peter May’s best-selling Lewis Trilogy, set in the Outer Hebrides, will shortly do so too. I will be surprised if Crashland doesn’t receive the same treatment. Give it a read before it hits the screen.