Tom Benn & Doug Johnstone Book Festival

City Life Gets Gritty was the heading that paired Tom Benn and Doug Johnstone at this year’s Book Festival, and having them share the stage proved to be an excellent idea. I saw Benn at this event last year, paired with Malcolm Mackay (whose How a Gunman Says Goodbye was my favourite crime novel at the time) which turned out to be a fairly low-key session that left me with the feeling that they both had a lot more to say.

Putting Benn, whose Henry Bane novels are set in his home turf of Manchester, together with local resident Doug Johnstone, who in addition to being an author is a musician with considerable stage presence, provided a much more animated session that under the banter gave far greater insight to the work of both men.

Neither use the police as central characters, Benn believing that using a criminal like Bane “he’s basically a crap superhero – he wants to bring justice to (mostly female) victims, but he’s not very good at it” allows him to cross boundaries that he couldn’t otherwise. A sentiment echoed by Johnstone whose use of “civilian” protagonists gives his books more emotional impact.

Both authors’ work is characterised by a strong sense of place, and in Benn’s case, a particular time, too. Their approach is very different, though, Johnstone’s story unfolds through an employee of (definitely NOT) The Scotsman rather than any element of the underworld. One curious thing he hadn’t realised until pointed out by a reviewer is that all his books end up at the same place they started – location-wise, that is, not the plot.

The event ended, as these things do, with questions from the audience, and we had one of those you-couldn’t-make-it-up moments. Doug Johnstone had made use of a song lyric on the cover of The Dead Beat after asking permission from Sony, which he was told would come at a fee. Never having received an invoice, this remained unpaid. The first question was prefaced by “I work for Sony, and so does the guy next to me”… but happily, that was not why they were there.

Anyway, my wife went straight out and bought the book – every little helps, Doug.

Jim Welsh