Paul Johnston bounces back with "The Death List" and a bumper pack of London-based crime fiction that feels a bit like a BOGOF (buy one get one free) deal, all rolled into one. The novel spreads to all the corners of contemporary crime fiction and it’s long, perhaps too long at 427 pages, but its page-turning momentum cannot be denied, all the way to the end.
In a nutshell: our hero, author Matt Wells has been dumped by his ambitious and professional City-working wife, his uppity literary agent and finally, his publisher; but he has one fan of his novels who remains in contact via email. The Devil has appreciated his historical novels, more than most, but he also has another reason for staying in touch with Wells. This fan likes crime fiction and wants to make it real, first picking off from his own "Death List" and then working on what he perceives as Wells’s own revenge "Death List". He very cleverly enrolls Wells in his killing endeavours, with no obvious way out. It becomes a game of cat and mouse with Wells implicated as an accomplice, where the Devil has Wells writing his story. Can Wells escape from this from this veritable gorefest, and how?
This novel is bursting with plenty of the scenarios you get in crime fiction: wicked serial killer; plenty of gory murders; surveillance; stalking; bribery; a chase; ex-SAS members; an explosive dénouement and more. The London setting is evocatively brought to the fore with Johnston proving he knows it well. (Unlike one novel I tried recently which will not feature on this blog. I managed to get page 60 only and wondered if the author had actually ever been to London where the first part was set…) London is perfectly safe in Johnston’s hands. Or maybe not, when it comes to the plot, but that’s the thrill of the read.
It’s good to see originality here too. Dante’s Divine Comedy and the nine circles of hell seem a little overused in crime fiction these days. Johnston chooses to bring us references to the work of English Jacobean dramatist John Webster, especially The White Devil (from which The Death List’s antagonist gets his name, obviously).
The Death List comes as a standard paperback from Mira, so if you like your British crime fiction, I suggest it’ll make perfect holiday reading for you and will certainly keep you going for a good few hours. However, if you’re on blood pressure tablets or have sticky ticker, you may prefer to read a cosy.
Johnston will be making an appearance at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in July.