Almost as sure an indicator of Spring’s arrival as the first cuckoo is the publication of the latest Doug Johnstone novel, and it is just as welcome. It was always going to be difficult to follow up last year’s Gone Again which, while still being distinctly Doug, was a more involving and emotional novel than he had written previously. It was also his best so far, and that is always problematic when it comes to what to do next.
Johnstone cleverly takes a step back to move forward with his latest, The Dead Beat, by reintroducing two of his most memorable characters from a previous novel Hit & Run, Billy Blackmore and ‘veteran crime reporter’ Rose. This has the effect of the regular reader soon being in familiar territory, and Johnstone can get into what he does better than most, take you to places you wouldn’t want to go to meet people you wouldn’t necessarily want to meet.
But Billy and Rose aren’t the central characters in The Dead Beat, that role falls to Martha Fluke, who is coming to terms with the death of her estranged father, and her new job in his old place of work, Edinburgh newspaper The Standard. When she is given the job of collating and writing the obituaries, it allows her to look more closely into her father’s life, and try to discover more about her own.
There is always a moment in Johnstone’s novels where things shift up a gear, and we are off on another break neck (possibly literally) race to find out who, when, why and “what the fuck?”. In this case, it is when Martha takes her first call on ‘the Dead Beat’ as her new role is referred to, and what she is told leads to her uncovering secrets and lies which stretch much further than she could possibly imagine. Doors are kicked in, guns are fired, pints are glugged and wrestling occurs. As with Hit & Run, this is a novel which leaves you breathless.
That is not to say that Johnstone’s books are all thrills and no substance. Whatever themes are to be explored he researches them thoroughly, as he told Scot Whay Hae! when we spoke to him last year. In The Dead Beat he examines mental illness, something which Martha and her twin brother Cal share, although they choose to deal with it in different ways. Cal is on medication, keeps super fit and attends counselling, while Martha has regular sessions of ECT (Electro-convulsive therapy) which she finds works for her. Such details of his characters lives are something which Johnstone takes very seriously, and this work and attention to detail make the individuals completely believable, which in turn makes you more accepting of the more unlikely occurrences or coincidences; something which too many writers overlook.
If there is an area of the book which Johnstone needed to do no research it is with the references to music. The Dead Beat has an outstanding soundtrack, particularly if you’re a fan of early ’90s US grunge. (Johnstone was inspired to make an accompanying mixtape, which you can see here). The flashbacks in the novel are set around a series of concerts attended in the early ’90s, and they include Nirvana in The Southern Bar, Soundgarden and The Screaming Trees at the Barras, Afghan Whigs at The Venue and Teenage Fanclub at The Music Box; which is an incredible wish-list of gigs. Add a cassette which Martha finds at her father’s, and if you like The Pixies, The Breeders, Lemonheads and their ilk, then you have the perfect musical accompaniment to the book. One of the songs mentioned is Been Caught Stealing by Jane’s Addiction, and I’m going to post it here as it is worth a listen at least once a day:
The Dead Beat is a novel which has two mysteries unfold as it progresses, one in the present day, and one from 20 years ago, and when they meet at the end it is genuinely thrilling, and you don’t know where your sympathies lie, and who has wronged who. Johnstone understands that the world isn’t simple split into those wearing white hats and those wearing black; it’s messy, confusing, contradictory and often well meaning actions reap terrible results. If you want some pulp fiction which asks difficult questions and gives no easy answers, then The Dead Beat is for you. If there is a more exciting writer around today, they’ve passed me by.