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The very curious incident: Top crime writer on a year of highs and lows after health scare that baffled medics and left him struggling to walk

© Andrew Eaton/AlamyCrime writer Doug Johnstone
Crime writer Doug Johnstone

As one of Scotland’s foremost crime writers Doug Johnstone is familiar with unexpected plot twists and turns. Yet even he was baffled by the mystery of the ailing author.

Last year the fit and healthy Johnstone collapsed while on a leisurely walk on Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh only for medics to reveal the unlikely culprit: a potentially deadly stroke.

Despite losing his sense of balance which left him struggling to walk he has almost made a full recovery. And last week he was named, along with three other Scottish writers, on the shortlist for the Crime Novel of the Year Award for his 12th book, The Big Chill.

The accolade is a fine ending to a year which began with a health scare for the father of two a few weeks before lockdown while out for a stroll.

“About halfway up Arthur’s Seat I started to feel really dizzy and sick,” says Johnstone, 50, from Edinburgh. “I had to sit then lie down on the path. Basically, I got really bad vertigo and couldn’t stand. Somebody who was walking past had to help me to a nearby bench. I phoned my wife to come pick me up. This was around lunchtime so I went home and went to bed for a few hours with no idea what it was. I thought it was perhaps a migraine.”

Doug’s baffled doctor told him to go to the accident and emergency ward but medics there were unsure as to what caused the collapse.

“They gave me an MRI scan and a couple of hours later came back and said I’d suffered a stroke,” adds Johnstone. “They were as surprised as I was, the symptoms I described are not really what people think of as associated with a stroke.

“It affected the cerebellum at the base of my brain. This type of stroke is different from the one people are probably more familiar with, this one can have very different effects.

Doug Johnstone, 2nd right, with, from left, fellow members of authors’ rock group Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, Stuart Neville, Luca Veste, Val McDermid, Mark Billingham and Christopher Brookmyre

“In my case my sense of balance and my coordination was totally gone. At the same time I didn’t have any cognitive or speech impairment, or paralysis.”

The risk factors for a stroke include smoking, diabetes and obesity; Johnstone, as an active, healthy-eating, football-playing man, had none of these.

Doctors instead discovered a hole in his heart – a condition affecting one in four people – may have been the culprit. A blood clot is thought to have passed through the hole. Most often these are caught in the lungs. This one ended up in his brain. In January he was fitted with a device (which Johnstone likens to a metal cocktail umbrella) in his heart which sealed the hole.

“I had an overnight stay in hospital and an examination by a physio and an occupational health therapist, and given blood thinners and statins. I started to feel a lot better and was out for walks within a couple of weeks. I’ve got a slight sensitivity to noises from different directions, it’s almost like I struggle to deal with background noise,” he says.

“The problem seems to be when there’s a jumble of noises from different sources. The first time I noticed this was when I was sitting having tea with my family and my two kids who were basically talking over each other. They were quite loudly arguing about something as kids do and I just had to say, ‘Guys, can you be quiet because I can’t deal with it, I’m going to have to leave the room’. It’s actually a good excuse to tell them to shut up! The thing is I’ve not been to the pub yet so we’ll see how I get on in the real world when things open up.”

Within a couple of months of his stroke Johnstone was back at his trusty desk in his loft, producing the kind of classic Tartan Noir which has put him in the same bracket as rivals – and friends – Christopher Brookmyre and Val McDermid.

“There are some massive big-hitters on that list every year and this year is no different – there’s Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Mark Billingham on there,” adds Johnstone. “It’s a big honour to be name-checked in the same list as those guys so I was very happy indeed. The crime-writing community is quite small and we all know each other, I’ve been doing it since 2006 so we’re all good pals.

“I suppose it is a rivalry but at the same time, it’s not. Writing is a solitary existence, you sit in your wee office writing stories and the only time you get to be sociable is a crime-writing festival with these other authors, so these are my mates. There’s been a bit of back and forth on that but it’s all very good-natured.”

The knives aren’t out yet among the crime writers which is just as well given Johnstone is in a rock band with seemingly most of the UK’s leading proponents of the genre.

Along with McDermid, Brookmyre, Billingham, Stuart Neville and Luca Veste, Johnstone is part of the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers. The group were due to tour last year and were even set to play Glastonbury, on the same bill as Janet Jackson, The Chemical Brothers and Liam Gallagher, before Covid forced its cancellation.

Johnstone is recording his own solo record, too, and the polymath is also branching into new areas of fiction, perhaps inspired by his degree in theoretical physics. He’s working on his first science fiction novel which he describes as “Thelma And Louise meets ET set in Scotland”.

“I’ve always kind of baulked at writing science fiction partly because it looks like an awful lot of hard work,” he explains. “There’s a lot of world building. There’s extra creativity you have to put in, and probably a lot more research than you have to do for the books I normally write. I just eventually thought, ‘well you know, if not now then when?’ I’ve always wanted to do it. You’re always trying to challenge yourself with your writing, you’re always trying something new and something different from what you’ve done before.

“I’m always trying to think outside my comfort zone. If you get too comfortable, you just end up churning out the same stuff and that’s not particularly healthy.”