Lead Review, plus #TalkingLocationWith… author Doug Johnstone
- Book: Crash Land
- Location: Orkney Islands
- Author: Doug Johnstone
“Orkney was stupidly beautiful, like God wanted to concentrate all his dramatic views views in one small archipelago halfway to the Arctic”.
Not a read for those who fear flying… Inclement weather is delaying the take off of the last small plane off the island, just before Christmas. The few passengers are anxious to get going to their onward destinations as they gather in the departure hall, killing time. Maddie, the single female passenger finds herself subjected to unwanted attentions by four oil workers, one of whom is particularly set on foisting his objectionable attentions upon her. Installed at the bar is Finn, a younger man, who observes the situation and is surprised when she comes over to him and suggests they drink together. In just a short time, they are chatting and choose to sit next to each other on the fairly empty plane.
What happens soon thereafter is a starkly drawn account of a plane going down. People die. But the focus is on the dynamics behind the plane’s sudden tail spin. Among the survivors are Maddie who disappears before the rescue services arrive, and Finn, who is injured, and who according to the flight attendant was the instigator of a scuffle that got out of hand and contributed to the tailspin, as witnessed by the fact he had been cable tied to his chair just moments before the plane went out of control.
A bond has formed between the Finn and Maddie and it is not long before Finn needs to know what happened to her. It is their story and their evasion of the authorities that comprise much of the book. What is she running from? Who is she really? His attraction to her skews his already traumatised thinking and the ducking and diving carries the reader along in an a focussed narrative, peppered with lust, guilt and shame. Well written and easy to read and understand, the thriller certainly kept me engrossed over several hours.
This novel will be a delight for anyone who know Orkney as landmarks and sites are plentiful and makes the setting feel very real and well researched.. Stromness, Kirwall, Tomb of the Eagles. Finstown, Suckquoy, Brodgar, Stenness Stones and many more pop up and make the setting a real character in the book.
Over to Doug for our #TalkingLocationWith…. feature:
There’s something magical about Orkney, a weird resonance to the archipelago off the north coast of Scotland that makes it an ideal place to set a crime novel, I think. The physical landscape is amazing, bleak, dramatic and engaging, but more than that, there’s a sense that the past is very much connected with the present on the islands.
That’s partly down to the ancient remains scattered across the islands. From Neolithic tombs to Viking constructions to wartime defences, the sense of history is palpable, and I wanted to use that as much as possible in my latest novel, Crash Land.
The book is a contemporary thriller based around the aftermath of a tragic plane crash, but I wanted to use as many historic locations as I could in the book, to try to tie the past into the present. So here are my top five places to visit on Orkney, each of them integral locations in the novel.
1. The Tomb of the Eagles
This place is incredible. Perched on a clifftop at the southern tip of South Ronaldsay, it’s a 5,000-year-old Stone Age tomb, discovered by local farmer Ronnie Simison in the 1950s, full of human and eagle remains. The Simisons still run it as a tourist attraction, if you can find it at the end of a farm track. They let you handle skulls, and wheel you in and out of the tomb on a wee gurney. From the nearby cliffs you can see mainland Scotland, and you get a strong sense of how these people lived and died in this place. This setting is crucial in the book, a place of refuge for one of the characters in the midst of terrible chaos.
Want to know what it feels like driving on the sea? Just drive over these four causeways that link several of the southern islands of Orkney. These were built near the start of the Second World War after a British battleship was sunk by a German U-boat in the nearby harbour of Scapa Flow. They’re low-slung roads between islands, basically, and at high tide and in high winds it can be a bit nerve-shredding crossing them, the waves dumping on your car. In fact, they’re frequently closed in bad weather, a fact I used in Crash Land to up the tension.
3. The Ring of Brodgar
This is a huge Neolithic stone circle, the third largest henge in Britain. Twenty-seven massive stones remain on a bleak isthmus between two small lochs on Orkney’s Mainland. As a result it can be seen for miles in any direction, and along with nearby Maeshowe and the Stones of Stenness, it was clearly a very important spiritual place. Built 4,000 years ago it now has World Heritage status, and you get an eerie feeling standing inside the circle or touching the stones. In Crash Land, my main character goes there and has a breakdown crossed with an epiphany, wondering about the ancient people who built it.
4. St Magnus Cathedral
Dominating Kirkwall’s skyline, St Magnus Cathedral is a superbly preserved Viking building, founded in 1137 and built from red sandstone. The large frontage is incredibly impressive, and the carvings inside and out really make you think about the kind of people who have used the church over the centuries. There are plenty of famous people buried both inside and outside in the ramshackle graveyard, and the place is still used today for services and concert, when the acoustics inside are remarkable.
5. The Italian Chapel
This is such an odd tourist attraction, but a beautiful one. During the Second World War, 550 Italian prisoners of war were held on Orkney and used to build wartime defences. They needed a place of worship so built this immaculate little chapel, made from two Nissen huts bolted together and painstakingly decorated. The interior is exquisite. It sits on the tiny island of Lamb Holm, miles from anywhere, but that just adds to its charm. I used this location for a crucial scene at the end of the book – I can’t tell you what happens, but I promise it’s dramatic!