HIT AND RUN, by Doug Johnstone
A driving factor of successful storytelling is your true belief, as the writer, in the story you’re telling. Meaning, you often feel as if you’re reporting it as opposed to creating it, because there’s absolutely no doubt that it’s really happening. That belief is fostered as your characters break away from your carefully-crafted outline and start speaking for themselves, which makes you feel like you’re simply listening to them and just typing as fast as you can to get it all down. And it’s clinched in those final scenes when everything you imagined and believed comes together with a wham-pow ending that unequivocally assures you that these final lines were where you were headed all along.
That’s the way I felt when I got to the final draft of Fatal Option. Fanciful thoughts aside, I didn’t really believe it actually happened. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about how easily it could have happened. For years I’ve been mildly obsessed with drunk driving disasters involving the kind of good people we live and work with every day. The story was real enough to me because it’s happened thousands of time in real life.
But then it got a little weirder, when I found myself Googling my characters by name – wondering what it would be like to see an image pop up that eerily replicates the picture of the person that I had in my mind. Thanks to the power of the Internet it was only a matter of time before searching for terms like “man convicted of drunk driving and manslaughter” and “hit and run” led me to . . . well, a novel called HIT AND RUN.
It’s written by a guy named Doug Johnstone, from Scotland. It’s about a newspaper reporter, Billy Blackmore, who’s living a reckless life of partying fueled by pills stolen by his physician brother, Charlie. Billy, Charlie, and Billy’s girlfriend Zoe are heading home with narcotic filled bloodstreams after a night of partying when Billy, the driver, crests the rise of a hill and stares up at the moon instead of down at the road. There’s an “almighty jolt in the car and a monstrous crashing noise,” and when they stop they find they’ve killed a man.
This gripping opening scene kicks off a “one-lie-leads-to-another” kind of story that leads Billy into deeper and deeper trouble with every chapter. The narrative is completely captivating. You read it with dread but can’t turn away. In terms of the accident, you know Billy “brought it on himself” because of the drinking and drugs and driving, but it’s easy to understand why he chooses – with prodding from Charlie and Zoe – not to turn himself in when the victim is already beyond saving. Unlike Charlie and Zoe, he’s emotionally addled by guilt from the beginning, and unable to ignore his intuition that trying to get away with the crime will lead to more misfortune. He’s right, because the accident triggers wave after wave of violence, described with a driving pace and powerfully evocative writing leading up to a crisis of conscience that Johnstone deals with perfectly.
Which leads me to this true confession. I started reading HIT AND RUN because I was interested in the parallels between Johnstone’s lead character and mine. They’re both good guys who do a bad thing and try to get away with it. Some readers will think Johnstone’s good guy is less sympathetic than mine because he was doing party drugs when it happened, unlike my guy, who was just trying to rescue his daughter. But they’re both likable people worth spending a couple of hours with as you turn the pages.
Fortunately, or not, if you read both books you’ll see that HIT AND RUN is a better book when it comes to the perfection of the writing and the settings that come to life with Johnstone’s carefully rendered descriptions. This is actually a wonderful thing for me as a writer who lives to be inspired by other writers – someone who loves discovering writers who also remind me how awesome it is to be completely captivated by the kind of story you wish you could tell on your own. The kind of story that you keep on your bookshelf for those moments when you want to challenge yourself to work just a bit harder to find the perfect phrase or even the perfect twist.
That’s the way I felt as I read HIT AND RUN, knowing there are many different ways to tell similar stories, and acknowledging how wonderful it is to experience the work of, and learn from, a master of the genre.