Book review: The Dead Beat by Doug Johnstone
Meet Martha… she’s a rookie reporter and within minutes of starting work, a caller puts a bullet through his head while he’s on the phone.
It’s the opening shot of a mystery that will launch her on a dangerous ride through the streets of Edinburgh and into the dark heart of her parents’ past.
The Dead Beat is the fifth novel from scientist turned author Doug Johnstone and when a nuclear physicist gets to work as a thriller writer, the outcome can only be explosive.
Throw in his experience as a freelance journalist, sidelines as a songwriter and musician and you have smart, well-written stories with intriguing plots and an up-tempo rhythm.
The Dead Beat sees Johnstone on top form as he plays out a thriller that is as much a searing psychological study and nostalgic feast of the 90s alternative music scene as it is a jet-propelled, dark-edged conundrum.
Accompanied by some of the larger-than-life characters we first met in his Edinburgh noir bestseller Hit & Run, he takes us back to The Standard, an ailing city newspaper where there are more desks than staff members.
Martha Fluke’s first day in the newsroom was never going to be easy. First of all, nobody knows she is the estranged daughter of their former news editor Ian Lamb who committed suicide two weeks ago by throwing himself off Edinburgh’s North Bridge.
Martha is an angry young woman. Strident, rude and often foul-mouthed, she is still bitter that her father walked out on her mother before she and her twin brother Cal were born. There is so much about him she doesn’t know and her morose and infuriatingly passive mother Elaine, who seems to have ‘closed down’ over the years, never speaks of him.
But that’s not the only baggage she’s carrying… Martha suffers from a serious form of depression, a ‘terrible oblivion’ that destroys every breath of air she takes under its ‘suffocating wings.’ Could her father have suffered the same affliction?
At The Standard, she is assigned straight on to the obituary page and takes a call from another of the paper’s long-serving journalists who seems to commit suicide while on the phone. The search for truth becomes a frantic hunt which leads to her own murky family history and a terrifying climax…
There is an almost tangible sense of expectation and excitement to this rollercoaster tale of dark secrets as Johnstone weaves his way into the mind of a rebellious, straight-talking and energetic young woman as she carves a rocky road through a wall of silence into a past she never knew existed.
Martha’s struggle with depression adds depth to both her edgy character and a plot that slowly but surely slots together like the random pieces of a jigsaw.
As always, Johnstone’s beloved city of Edinburgh takes a starring role, along with some trenchant, journalistic black humour and a storyline perfectly in tune with pop history’s real-life musical magicians.
A mystery with its own special beat…
(Faber, paperback, £7.99)