• Novel Novelist

Breakers, by Doug Johnstone

4.5*

Shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Best Scottish Crime Novel 2019


Breakers was given 4.5* for being a compelling and eloquently written alternative take on the traditional crime fiction model that not only left my nerves jangled but challenged my own perceptions of society.


Judges said of Breakers: “A tightly written and compelling exploration of two sides of Edinburgh, touching on social topics rarely examined in crime fiction. A brilliant and moving portrait of family dynamics and loyalty as a young boy struggles to break out of his powerlessness.”

Despite being an avid reader, I have come to realise that I am a narrow reader. If I read anything from the “crime thriller” genre, then it is some variation on the psycho-serial-killer being hunted by the sociopathic-eccentric-detective (I’m not apologising for it – I love a good serial killing). Breakers broke that mould by being a crime thriller of a whole different world.


Breakers is a short novel (devoured in four bus rides and one evening) but every sentence is tightly written and nothing is superfluous. The novel is about seventeen-year-old Tyler Wallace and his struggle to protect and provide for his baby sister and addict mother in a world of poverty, violence, and crime. Tyler is physically and emotionally abused by his older half-brother Barry and coerced into regularly committing property theft in the affluent areas of Edinburgh. In a severe case of sheer stupidity and incredible bad luck, Tyler and Barry (along with half-sister Kelly) unknowingly rob the home of a local and powerful gang family; the job goes wrong and Barry ends up stabbing the wife when she returns unexpectedly, before running and leaving her for dead. There is an intense moment where Tyler stops and looks at Monica, lying on the floor with a knife wound to her back, and they make an eye contact in a moment that haunts Tyler throughout the rest of the novel.


We know that Tyler is a good boy in the wrong family by the cover synopsis, but Johnstone exaggerates this by having Tyler refer to his mother as Angela, rather than mum, and keeping him clean, away from the alcohol and cocaine and heroine that plague his family. Because of this, Tyler really challenges our perceptions of the stereotypical teenage criminal, who we usually picture as unintelligent, inherently aggressive, uneducated, and more than likely stealing to fund a hard drug habit or a refusal to get ‘a job like the rest of us’. And in the case of Barry and Kelly this is most definitely true; they both fulfil the typical stereotypes (down to the steroid-pumped muscles, dog fighting, and hints of incest – so Jeremy Kyle). Tyler breaks that mould entirely. He is intelligent and street smart, he is responsible and loving, he is fiercely loyal. Tyler's criminal behaviour challenges stereotypes as it is at odds with his tender caring and protectiveness of his sister, Bean, and his sense of family loyalty, despite it being entirely unreciprocated from his siblings and mother. This contradiction of characters is further emphasised by the presence of Barry, your typical thug: foul mouthed, a drug habit, poorly treats his dogs, and a casual disregard for human life. We dislike Barry for being the chav that he is, but we feel sorrow for Tyler despite them both being raised in the same household and engaging in equally destructive behaviour. I like the fact that Tyler plays truant and skips school: this isn't a teen coming-of-age story about the poverty-stricken boy who steals text books just so he can go to college. Tyler is disenfranchised and cynical and responsibility-laden more so than the most of us, despite his tender seventeen years of age.

There were so many points during reading where I just wanted to reach into the pages and shake Tyler by the damn shoulders. Tyler keeps doing silly things, like driving by the scene of the crime, going to the hospital and pretending to be Monica Holt’s son so he can check on her (your concern is touching but my god, you're dealing with a gangster moll and the police are on to you. Be smart!!)

Author Doug Johnstone has an incredible ability to create tension and continue to rachet it up to an almost unbearable point. Right from the outset this novel makes you feel anticipation to the nervous extreme – from the very first page you just know something awful is going to happen. There is a constant sense of foreboding: is the stabbed woman dead? Injured? Still lying there in the hallway alone?; the shotgun, the money, the obvious wealth in the house they’re robbing – who lives here and why does he have a sawn off shotgun under the bed?; the stolen polaroid camera and the selfies with his baby sister – is someone going to see them at school? What if someone recognises it? Aah!


Author Johnstone weaves together many unique themes not typical to other works of this genre, such as the rich/poor divide, the wider implications of poverty, the education system, the abandonment of poor areas by the rest of society and government. The theme of family is a strong one especially the idea that family dynamic in any setting, whether the very poor or the very rich, can be problematic. It can also be a saving grace and a reason to end the death and destruction – but I won’t give any spoilers away! Motherhood is also woven throughout the novel and I found the character of Angela (Tyler’s mum) and Monica (the woman stabbed in the burglary) not that different, despite their obvious social divides. Is there really any difference between smack-addled Angela and rich working-wife Monica? Yes, Angela isn’t going to win Mother of the Year award, but at the end of the day Monica reaps the rewards of blood money and she willingly allows her own teenage son to engage in criminal behaviour. She does not protect her son or keep him from harm, and nor does Angela.


Breakers challenges perceptions of crime and the criminal. Tyler and Barry are opposite sides of the same coin: Barry the cliché violent stereotype, Tyler the surprisingly intelligent and introspective kid just trying to look out for his sister. The boundaries of crime are also breached, presented as two different means to two very different ends for those like Tyler and for people like Barry. For Barry, crime is a way to fuel his drug and gambling habits, but for the Tyler’s of society (and I don’t doubt that there are many), it is a way to feed and provide some comforts for his baby sister, and as a way to protect his family from the wrath of Barry should he refuse to go along with him. Tyler is clean, he doesn’t waste what he steals because it is a functional necessity, not an entitled disregard for those better off than him, as per Barry's own twisted logic of karma for being a "posh wanker". Whilst I don’t condone Tyler’s behaviour, I do feel strongly that he is a victim of the neglect of state and society and should be protected, not punished.


Breakers was given 4.5* for being a compelling and eloquently written alternative take on the traditional crime fiction model that not only left my nerves jangled but challenged my own perceptions of society.


** Potential Spoiler Warning **

When reading I always extract quotes that I find particular poignant or well-written. I have included these below and citing their page number/Kindle location. Some of these quotes might present spoilers.


"Tyler had the adrenaline rush too, but it felt like a betrayal. He was ashamed of what he had done but the endorphines pulsed through his bloodstream, making him feel as if he'd achieved something ..." (Page 14)


"Space and time, that's what money should buy you, not Cartier and TAG Heuer." (Page 17)


"Living round here, you grew up quick or got left behind. Addicted and abusive parents were all over this neighbourhood, three generations of the wasted and the institutionalised fuck-ups, left, right and centre." (Page 30)


"Everything came in to play in a place like this, the ghosts of people's childhoods haunted your every step in a community this interconnected." (Page 61)


"'It's not anyone's faut. Snook is a good mum. Look at the other two puppies, they're fine, aren't they? Sometimes these things just happen. It's just life.'

Bean stared down at the dead puppy in her lap, played with its ear between her thumb and finger.

'Then life's not fair,' she said." (Page 155)


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