There’s a pleasing whiff of nostalgia about Doug Johnstone’s latest book The Dead Beat, which is set both in the present day and twenty years ago. The modern day story sees student Martha Fluke begin a placement at ailing Edinburgh newspaper The Standard. This is in the wake of the suicide of her father, a man who also worked there as a journalist. On her first day Martha is assigned to the obituaries desk, otherwise known as ‘the dead beat’; but when a phone caller recites his own obituary before blowing the top of his head off with a pistol, Martha finds herself pulled into an uncertain and dangerous world.
The reasons behind this suicide are explored in the second storyline, which describes Martha’s parents in their youth. Their story is told through a series of gigs in early 90s Edinburgh and Glasgow, and bands such as Nirvana, the Pixies, Teenage Fanclub and The Breeders feature heavily. These sections reminded me of my own mis-spent youth, at a time when I was leaving school and moving away to uni. There’s something of that excitement in Elaine and Ian’s growing relationship, and the group of friends they are part of. As the novel continues, these two storylines increasingly converge with past events foreshadowing what is happening to Martha in the present.
As so often, it’s character that keeps you reading and Martha is an engaging guide, sarky, vulnerable and tenacious. What’s also entertaining is Martha’s impatience with her parents, and her inability to believe they did anything of note before she and her twin brother Cal came along. I know I was the same, and it’s only something you begin to question when you have children of your own. The idea that your own parents had a youth, and an interest in music and clothes and socialising – really? There’s an amusing culture clash – Walkmans, home-made cassettes and vinyl versus MP3s, mobiles phones and the internet – which grows out of Martha’s exasperation at how her parents used to live. ‘So weird, how much effort went into life twenty years ago,’ she muses at one point.
Martha suffers from depression, and Johnstone’s depiction of her illness is very sympathetic; it’s at such a debilitating level that Martha is being treated through the use of Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT). It’s a bold subject to tackle in book as pacy and eventful as this one, but Johnstone treats it with respect and a refreshing lack of sensation. Martha’s therapy also lends the book a pleasing uncertainty – are all these events real, or are her perceptions being clouded by her illness? – which kept me engaged, and eager to see how the action concluded. Martha is a very human protagonist, and as the reader you wish her well, in spite of her faults.
Reviewing Johnstone’s oeuvre online, I was pleased to see that The Dead Beat is a semi-sequel to an earlier novel, Hit and Run, which I’ve yet to read. Events featured in that earlier book are referred to in this one, but only obliquely; not reading it won’t interfere with your enjoyment of The Dead Beat in the slightest. I’m always pleased when an author develops up their own self-contained world across the books they write, in the same way I get a kick out of bands and musicians who self-reference themselves in their work. I’m not entirely sure why; maybe it’s because they pay attention to what they say, and want to add depth to it rather than discarding it completely and moving on.
At its heart, The Dead Beat is a finely tuned story of family, secrets and past wrongs. Having written five previous novels, Johnstone is smart enough here not to over-egg the pudding; I was expecting more plot twists, when in fact that novel works excellently (and more effectively) without them. It’s also a pleasing portrait of Edinburgh, a city that Johnstone clearly knows very well and one that I’d like to get to know better. My two previous visits were largely filled with the drunken Hogmanay antics of my youth, and are somewhat cloudy – perhaps another reason why The Dead Beat struck a chord with me.
Doug Johnstone’s website is at dougjohnstone.wordpress.com