It’s been a rather long while since we last heard from Scottish thriller writer Paul Johnston. Which made me rather irritable, as I loved his Quintilian Dalrymple novels, set in a futuristic Edinburgh, as well as his Alex Mavros books, set in modern Greece. But then, pretty much out of nowhere, comes The Death List, Johnston’s rip-roaring new serial-killer opus that takes place in contemporary London. This novel (the first installment of a third series) is set to be released by Mira Books in the UK in June, and then in the States a month later. Let me warn you, though: The Death List is a brutal and disturbing, but nonetheless witty and literate tale.
The plot builds around Matt Wells, a struggling crime writer, struggling father, and generally struggling man in a world that seems to have conspired against him. Add to that base an obsessive and deranged fan who’s stalking Wells, and you have all of the ingredients for a tense thriller. Evidently, this unhinged fan is a budding serial murderer who calls himself the White Devil, and who ensnares the hapless Wells in a deadly cat-and-mouse game that leaves a trail of torture and murder all over the historic British capital--many of the crimes based on scenes in Wells’ fiction. At first, the White Devil punishes people who did him harm during his traumatic childhood: his priest, a teacher, and a school bully. But when the killer begins targeting people from Wells’ world, the police begin to take greater notice. It’s clear that Wells is being set up, given the appearance of being a murderer himself. Also apparent is that the White Devil knows in advance every move Wells makes, adding to the latter’s frustration.
Johnston’s increasingly angry protagonist sends many of his loved ones--his daughter, his ex-wife, his mother, and his lover--into hiding, and simultaneously calls forth some of his old rugby friends to help him fight back against the White Devil. Using high-tech methods as well as brute force, Wells & Company go hunting for the hunter. Meanwhile, in the background, a contingent of Special Air Service (SAS) troopers roam London’s back alleys, searching for answers from people familiar with the White Devil. And as both the good guys and the baddies are dispatched with a dash of the Grand Guignol, the stakes in this chase are dramatically heightened.
So pleased was I to find a new Johnston novel on my shelves, that I tracked down the author as he came through London recently to learn more about what he’s been up to since the publication of his last novel, The Golden Silence, in 2004.
Ali Karim: Been a while, Paul, and I hear you’ve not been well.
Paul Johnston: Yeah, I was hit by cancer over four years ago. I had an operation and then four months of chemotherapy. It’s taken me more time than I initially imagined to get back to writing.
AK: So glad to know that you’re better.
PJ: Many thanks. Most people in the crime-writing and -reading world have been fantastically supportive. It really has helped. As have the facts that I married a wonderful Greek woman and became the father of our beautiful daughter, Maggie, within the space of two weeks, a year and a half ago.
AK: So should I assume, by the fact that you’ve moved on to a new protagonist, that you’re done with Mavros and Quint?
PJ: Never say never, as James Bond would have said. Body Politic , the first Quint novel, has recently been optioned for a film, so the series might get a kick-start from that (if it ever makes it to the shooting stage). I’m still interested in most things Greek (although the social inequalities and the revolting corruption get me down), so Mavros might still find his missing brother, Andonis.
AK: The Death List is a very exciting book. Can you tell me a little about its genesis?
PJ: It was written quickly and revised at leisure. I have what might seem to be a facile belief that page-turning books should be written at speed. The genesis of [The Death List] was my own difficult situation after cancer. For various reasons, I parted company with both my publisher and my agent. I was also going through a divorce. More important, though, was the idea of putting a crime writer in situations that normally only occur in his fiction. What would he, or anyone, do if a child was under threat? How far would he go to protect his daughter?
AK: This new novel just exudes anger. In fact it bristles with it, as well as with the need for retribution and revenge.
PJ: I guess the anger comes from the various personal situations I mentioned. As for revenge, I’ve toyed with it as a motive in previous novels, but never as the main theme. The desire for revenge seems to me to be a salient feature of human beings--animals don’t do revenge, whatever Herman Melville and Peter Benchley might think. It’s also an urge that is rarely satisfied--we all want to kill our boss at some stage, but we sublimate that emotion and abide by the rules of society. Well, what do you do if you come up against an antagonist who doesn’t care about those rules? It’s a big question and one that was paramount during the last century, given that Hitler and Stalin didn’t exactly pay much attention to the rule of (normal) law.
AK: So I assume Matt Wells will continue as a character in your fiction?
PJ: Yes, I’m writing the sequel. The provisional title is The Collector of Souls.
AK: So what will Wells be up to next?
PJ: There’s a threat left over from The Death List, but he also comes up against a group of Satanists and a killer with very dubious tastes in music.
AK: Were you disturbed at all by the level of violence that peppers this work?
PJ: Ah, ye olde violence question. I suppose The Death List lacks the political dimension that all my earlier books could use as justification for the large numbers of dead people. This is a more personal book. I suppose I let my emotions go, and look what happened. ... More seriously, the modern reader is deadened by the nightly visions of death from Iraq and elsewhere on the news. Crime writers need to up the stakes just to grab readers’ attention. So the answer to your question is a qualified yes, I guess. But disturbance is an essential part of crime writing, isn’t it?
AK: Are you interested in Grand Guignol?
PJ: If you mean the 19th-century French theatrical mode, no. But I’ve been a devoted viewer of trashy horror movies since I was a wee boy. I was looking at Body Politic (published exactly 10 years ago) recently and I saw that I’d used the phrase “the poetry of violence.” (I can hear my friend John Connolly saying “pretentious twat,” even as we talk.) There is something aesthetically interesting about violence, which the Jacobean revenge tragedians tapped into in a big way; as did such disparate talents as Homer, [Sam] Peckinpah (I always wanted to mention those two in the same breath), most major painters, and, of course, William “Titus Andronicus” Shakespeare.
AK: Despite your recent illness, your sense of humor seems to be intact, and your books contain large doses of it.
PJ: Where would we be without humor? Interestingly, my brush with death seems to have heightened my essentially comedic view of life and d-- (no, I don’t want to mention it twice in the same sentence). Of course, humor’s a very relative thing. What I would say is that humor and revenge are closely linked. Given the vileness of many people’s lives (I’m thinking of Afghanistan, most of Africa, and the poor in Western countries), I find it amazing that they can face life. A sense of humor really does seem to help. Anyway, what else are you going to do when confronted with the Grim Reaper? After spitting in his face, you laugh ...
AK: I see you’ve switched publishers. So tell me about Mira Books.
PJ: I have to tell you that I had become very cynical about publishers, not least because my previous outfits in both the UK and the U.S. were about as good at selling my books as George Bush is at spelling. But [the folks at] Mira in the UK, U.S., and all over the world are a complete revelation. They are endlessly enthusiastic, capable, and inventive. I recently spent a week doing various activities they had organized in London, and it was the most successful and enjoyable time I’ve ever had in the business. (No, they’re not making me say this.)
AK: I’ve heard its whispered about that you are considering writing a book in a different genre under a pen name. Is that true?
PJ: Yeah, I thought I’d try a legal thriller under the name “Scott Grisham.” Wait a minute, where did you hear that? It’s true that I’ve recently been extending my reading into genres that I avoided in the past. And I would like to write in some of them, but it’s too early to say which yet.
AK: So, are you still living in Greece?
PJ: I’m based in Scotland, but I do spend a lot of time in Greece. My wife, Roula, is a civil servant there. I always spend the summer in the UK, not least because I do a slew of chairing events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival--the biggest and best in the world. People should come. There are plenty of crime writers every year, not all of them Scottish and called Ian.
AK: Last question: What have you been reading recently?
PJ: Oh, very cunning, Ali. You’ve found a way to get me to disclose the genres I might move into. All right, fair enough. I’ve been reading Philip K. Dick, Gene Wolfe, Philip Kerr, and David Gemmell. Plus a lot of history and David Thomson’s fantastic New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Oh, and Aristophanes--for the jokes.
Paul Johnston will appear this coming July at the Harrogate Crime-Writing Festival. Click here for more details.