The Dead Beat by Doug Johnstone

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Reviewed by Harriet Devine

At the beginning of the The Dead Beat, Martha Fluke is visiting her father’s grave in an Edinburgh cemetery.

There was a bunch of yellow carnations at the foot of the gravestone, already battered by the elements and wilted. She crouched down and fingered the stems, looking for a card. Nothing. She stood up, cricked her neck and rolled her shoulders. Stepped up to the stone and kicked it.

‘You arsehole’, she said.

That moment just about sums up Martha, and basically encapsulates what’s going to happen in the rest of this clever, perceptive, surprising novel. Martha, as she’s happy to admit, is completely messed up. She’s suffered from mental problems for most of her life, and she’s only in her early twenties. She drinks too much, stays up too late, lives a chaotic life, and is only kept more or less on an even keel by periodic courses of electro-convulsive therapy. She’s angry with her dead father and with her live mother. Not, you might be thinking, anyone’s idea of an attractive protagonist. But you’d be wrong. Martha is also bright, witty, and certainly capable of love, as her deep attachment to her twin brother Cal shows.

After her visit to the cemetery, Martha sets off for town. It’s the first day of her new job, an internship in the office of an Edinburgh newspaper, part of her journalism degree. She’s assigned to what they call the Dead Beat – the obituary section. Gordon Harris, who runs it, has failed to turn up for work yet again. Almost as soon as she sits down at the desk, the phone rings. A man is crying at the other end and insists on dictating an obituary: ‘Gordon Harris died this week in tragic circumstances at his home, aged forty-five’. At the end of the call, still weeping, he says ‘This is Gordon Harris’.  Then there’s the sound of a gunshot and the phone goes dead. Not surprisingly, this triggers a chain of events in which Martha, together with her fellow worker and new friend Billy Blackmore, gets deeply involved.

Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.  ©Bo&Ko via Flikr

Gordon’s suicide seems undeniably, though confusingly, connected with that of Martha’s father, also a journalist, just a few weeks earlier. Martha believes her mother may have some of the answers, but Elaine is closed and uncommunicative. So, it’s up to Martha, Billy and Cal to slowly uncover the painful truths of these ruined lives, and of Martha’s own past.

I was tremendously impressed with this novel. It manages to combine an undeniably dark plot with an extraordinary freshness and liveliness, largely owing to the wonderfully conceived character of Martha, who is carried through the increasingly upsetting revelations she uncovers by her spirit, energy and determination.  Her mother, too, such a grey and apparently uninteresting woman at the start, gradually emerges, through flashbacks to a series of gigs she attended in the early 1990s, as someone who has suffered greatly and has important things to tell Martha and Cal about their own past. This was my first encounter with Doug Johnstone, but it certainly won’t be my last. Great stuff.

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Doug Johnstone, The Deat Beat (Faber, 2014). 250 pages, paperback.

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