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Monday, 8 December 2014

‘The Dead Beat’ by Doug Johnstone

Published by Faber & Faber,
1 May 2014.
ISBN: 978 0 571 30885 9

Until more than halfway through this dour, yet oddly gripping, novel, it isn’t at all clear that any crime has been committed. There’s an underlying sense of something not quite right, but the only  deaths are two suicides in the first twenty pages, both by congenital depressives, so neither came as a great surprise.

Instead of the kind of mystery you itch to investigate, there are characters who jump off the page. The protagonist is fledgling journalist Martha, battling depression herself and determined not to give in to it. Then there’s V, newspaper sub-editor by day, all-in wrestler by night, larger than life in every possible way; Billy, wannabe crime reporter who plainly has a past with a capital P; flamboyant Rose, who knows more than she’s willing to tell; and several more, whose relevance slowly become clear as the story unfolds.

There’s a well-drawn background too: the less well-heeled side of Edinburgh in the grey winter chill, and the modern face of local newspaper journalism, with all the restlessness and discontent that come with the cutbacks and belt-tightening measures which leave half a dozen people doing the work of thirty.

Best of all, there’s the kind of fluent, effortless writing that you simply don’t notice, so perfectly in tune is it with the grimly absorbing storyline.  Doug Johnstone is a man who knows his subject, be it local paper journalism, the 1970s music scene or treatments for mental illness – and he can write. And though the narrative doesn’t move fast at first, the questions and undercurrents soon begin to gather pace, and those characters get under your skin and make you want to know what really did happen.

There is a crime, of course, and, as befits the genre, a dramatic climax which pulls all the threads together and answers most of the questions. But the culprit is no ordinary villain, and I was left wondering exactly who had sinned and who was sinned against.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Doug Johnstone is a writer, musician and journalist based in Edinburgh. His sixth novel, The Dead Beat, was published by Faber and Faber in May 2014. Gone Again (2013) was an Amazon bestseller and Hit & Run (2012) and was an Amazon #1 as well as being selected as a prestigious Fiction Uncovered winner. Smokeheads (2011) was nominated for the Crimefest Last Laugh Award. Before that Doug published two novels with Penguin, Tombstoning (2006) and The Ossians (2008). His work has received praise from the likes of Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin, William McIlvanney, Megan Abbott and Christopher Brookmyre.
Doug is a singer, musician and songwriter in several bands, including Northern Alliance, who have released four albums to critical acclaim, as well as recording an album as a fictional band called The Ossians. Doug released his debut solo EP, 'Keep It Afloat', in 2011.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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