Review: Gone Again, By Doug Johnstone

Quiet thriller with a hero who's more everyman than superman

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Imagine that Jack Reacher, the leading man in Lee Child's action-packed thrillers, was married. What would Jack do if his wife disappeared? No one who gets in his way would remain un-punched; there would be bodies piling up and blood on the floor. Huge fight scenes, very short sentences. Readers would, if they're anything like me, follow all this with a vicarious thrill – how satisfying it would be to cut a swathe through your enemies with two shovel-sized fists and face no repercussions.

In reality, being crazed with worry, trying desperately to find your wife, and throwing punches at the wrong people would see you in a very tight spot indeed. At least, that's the experience of Mark Douglas, the protagonist in Doug Johnstone's fifth novel, Gone Again. Not only is Mark more of an everyman than a superman, he also has a young son, Nathan, to look after while he tries to find out where his wife, Lauren, has gone.

In fact, the first inkling that something is, if not wrong, then amiss, comes from Nathan's school: "It's just to say that no one has come to pick Nathan up from school, that's all, and we were wondering if there was a problem of some kind."

At first it's an inconvenience, but as all Mark's calls to Lauren's mobile go answered, he starts to worry – not least because she vanished once before, right after Nathan was born. Where is she now? Will she come back? Mark has his suspicions, about her past as well as the future. But his own history – he's got one hell of a temper – means that the police become extremely interested in what he was doing on the day that Lauren left work and never came back.

As thrillers go, Gone Again's plot isn't fiendishly deceptive, or out to confound you at every point. Neither is it an against-the-clock adventure with the future of the world at stake. Its appeal lies in a certain quietness; that it is more about one family's trauma than a larger, more explosive chain of events. It's a very honest book about love and loss – the loss of youth, the loss of innocence, and the loss of trust. Despite his flaws, Mark is a doting father, and alongside his anger and anguish over Lauren's disappearance, and his raging at anyone he feels is standing in the way of finding her, there are charming and funny moments that capture what being a parent is all about. What is the Tooth Fairy's current pricing policy? Is Darth Vader in part a goody, because he saves Luke at the end of Star Wars? Frankly, I can't imagine Jack Reacher being much cop at tackling either of those dilemmas.

As a reader whose knowledge of Edinburgh begins and ends with Inspector Rebus, it is fascinating to see that city through Mark's eyes. While he and Lauren met in a city-centre bar as wildish young things, their lives as parents are punctuated by walks on Portobello pier. It's here that Mark, while photographing a seemingly doomed group of whales in his job as a freelance newspaper photographer, first gets the call that tells him Lauren has failed to pick up their son, and it's where he is repeatedly tested by the implications of his wife's vanishing act.

In Mark Douglas, Johnstone has created a man who feels very real, and one who has, and fights for, the one thing that a certain Mr Reacher doesn't have – a family.