Tom McCulloch

Sandstone, £8.99

At 75 years of age, film director and business tycoon Johnny Jackson is making a rare public appearance, marking half a century since the founding of his company, Breda Pictures.

But this interview is not what he anticipated. Rather than an elevated discussion with some earnest cineaste steeped in the history of film, “What follows instead is a raucous celebration of the monkey films that made the Breda Boys famous”.

Yes, the revered Johnny Jackson actually began his career in a Scottish comedy music-hall trio with his father and brother, treading the same boards as the likes of Lex McLean and Jimmy Logan before breaking into films. With a chimp. Everybody loved the chimp.

And now, having parlayed Breda Pictures into a multinational conglomerate, he heads back to Scotland to be awarded the freedom of the town of Inveran after 30 years of seclusion in Japan. Cocooned in a secure bubble maintained by his faithful manservant Akira and the obsessive micro-managing of his niece Erin, Johnny reflects on his life.

He replays the struggles and successes, and remembers the ones who fell by the wayside, above all his older brother Duke. Handsome, charming Duke. The most popular UK screen actor of 1959. The one who craved public acclaim the most, but needed drink and drugs to cope when he got what he wanted. The one who took credit for Johnny’s achievements and married the woman he loved.

As the saga of the Breda Boys unfolds in parallel with Johnny’s return to Scotland in the present day, the lies, betrayals, secrets and regrets of a lifetime are gradually revealed. And it seems that at least one other person knows about them too: a stalker, who has been sending Johnny emails addressing him as Shinigami – in Japanese mythology “a parasitic being who extends his own life through the deaths of others”.

McCulloch’s characterisation of Johnny is complex but handled with as light a touch as the lean, tight storytelling which makes this such a pleasure to read.

As flawed as Johnny is, the author always leaves a door open for us to sympathise or identify with him, so, for all the devastation he has left in his wake, we can see him as a victim of circumstances as much as the architect of his own misfortune.

Self-aware enough to perceive the emptiness of his life, and irascible enough to enjoy winding up his exasperated niece, Johnny has an appealing wryness, the nonchalance of an old man who knows he doesn’t have many rolls of the dice left and finds the prospect of a stalker more intriguing than threatening.

Plus, for all that this is a whisky-drenched story about a Highland homecoming, McCulloch resists the easy route of sentimentality and showy, crowd-pleasing catharsis. The climactic confrontation with the ghosts of his past is, when it comes, wilfully underplayed, and all the better for it. Coming to terms with his past takes second place, or so it feels, to just getting through the next few days.

alastair mabbott