Paul Johnston's Edinburgh
Andrew Lownie, author of The Edinburgh Literary Companion pays tribute to Paul Johnston's series of futuristic Edinburgh crime novels.
Paul Johnston's first novel Body Politic (1997) won the Crime Writers' Association John Creasey Memorial Dagger for the best first crime novel. This was followed by three more Edinburgh crime novels, published between 1998 and 2000, though crime novel fails to do justice to what are a combination of political satires and fantasies. Instead of setting his books in the past or present, like almost every other writer on Edinburgh, his series was set in the near future in an Edinburgh that was recognisable but very different. Amongst the scores of novels set during the Festival, about adultery in Morningside or the youth culture in Leith or about Greyfriars Bobby, Deacon Brodie and Burke and Hare this was a fresh take on the Edinburgh novel.
Body Politic opens in 2020. The 'Athens of the North' is now 'The Bangkok of the North', an historical theme park dependent entirely on tourism and especially sex tourists from the Far East. There is a year-round festival with gaming tents in Charlotte Square and a race course over the disused railway lines in Princes Street Gardens. Edinburgh is now a City State, modelled on Plato's Republic, run by Guardians, whose policies over the ordinary citizens are enforced by the auxiliaries, and which is terrorised by drugs gangs operating from outside the city boundaries. The Forth Rail and Road bridges have gone, destroyed in the fighting after the city's declaration of independence whilst Cramond Island has become a penal colony.
It is a dehumanised society. The Council of Guardians control the taking of photographs 'seeing them as a major element in the cult of the individual that has helped to destroy the United Kingdom'. Auxiliaries live in barracks (named after famous figures in Scottish history such as Hume, Heriot, Knox, Bell, Raeburn, Watt, Scott), are known by their barracks and then a number. The lesser citizens must attend weekly sex sessions with a partner allocated by the Recreation Directorate. All mothers must work with their children put in institutional care from the age of six months. Capital Punishment has been abolished (though mock executions in period costumes re-enacting bloody scenes from Edinburgh's history still take place in the Lawnmarket), suicide has been banned, hair must not exceed an inch in length, there is a night curfew and television and private cars have been banned. Only a carefully regulated black market maintains equilibrium.
The central character Quintilian Dalrymple. named after the Roman orator, has rebelled against his background (his parents were both Guardians) and after a spell in the Parks Department is now one of the city's investigators. Each of the books in the series, set respectively in 2020, 2021, 2025 and 2026, revolves around a series of gruesome killings which Dalrymple has to investigate though Johnston does not always consistently explore the implications of crime within the vision he has created. In The Blood Tree a character notes 'There are plenty of parallels between late Republican Rome and this city in 2026' but there are also shades of Strathclyde Regional Council in the corrupt City State and his Edinburgh sometimes appears as a cross between Monaco and East Berlin. That said, it somehow works and it is revealing that the series has been published in America, Japan, Denmark and Portugal.
Gradually during the course of the books Johnston's fictional world is built and we learn more about him - his love for Caro killed by his arch enemy the Ear, Nose and Throat Man in 2015 and his growing relationship with a fellow subversive Katherine Kirkwood; and several running characters such as Patsy Cameron, the ex-brothel keeper who once ran the Prostitution Services Department, and the beautiful Medical Guardian known as the Ice Maiden. We also discover what happened to Edinburgh after the rioting of 2002 left Holyrood in ruins. 'The crown prince's divorce and remarriage to a Colombian drugs heiress signed the old order's death warrant.'
The series falls into the long tradition of the Edinburgh novel with its strong sense of place and history and its depiction of the duality of the city which has interested everyone from James Hogg in Confessions of a Justified Sinner and R.L. Stevenson in Dr Jekyll and My Hyde to Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and the novels of Ian Rankin but it is also original. What appealed to me was the way Johnston has reordered Edinburgh's topography to bring out its sinister and sordid aspects. The imposing Bank of Scotland on the Mound is now the Finance Directorate, the Council meets in the old Church of Scotland Assembly Hall with official receptions in the former Parliament House now called the Halls of the Republic, the Tolbooth church on Castlehill is now a strip joint frequented by Thai tourists wearing Black Watch kilts while Holyrood Park is now Enlightenment Park. Perhaps, too, part of the appeal is that our old school has been blown up after it became a haven for drugs dealers.