Meet Martha. It’s the first day of her new job as intern at Edinburgh’s The Standard. But all’s not well at the ailing newspaper, and Martha is carrying some serious baggage of her own. Put straight onto the obituary page, she takes a call from a former employee who seems to commit suicide while on the phone, something which echoes with her own troubled past.Setting in motion a frantic race around modern-day Edinburgh, The Dead Beat traces Martha’s desperate search for answers to the dark mystery of her parents’ past…

I must confess that after the slight disappointment of Gone Again, Johnstone’s previous book, he is completely back on song again with The Dead Beat, a thought provoking and emotive thriller set in Edinburgh. With the backdrop of a failing local newspaper, Johnstone not only reprises the character of reporter, Billy Blackmore (Hit and Run) but brings to our attention, Martha, whose first day on the paper as the obituary writer, proves eventful to say the least, setting in motion a whole series of events that resonate strongly with both the here and now, and echoing back to the early 1990‘s…

Following the recent suicide of her father, himself the former news editor at The Standard, Martha is embarking on a work experience placement at the paper. She takes a call from the former obituary writer, and during the course of it, he appears to commit suicide. Naturally, she and her colleague Billy become intimately involved with these events, and soon the investigation begins to encroach heavily on the dark secrets of Martha’s family background. Not only does Johnstone weave a compelling thriller from those initial events, which I will not reveal more details of, but with the theme of mysterious suicides looming large throughout, takes the opportunity to present the reader with an entirely more meditative study of death, the breakdown of families and how the events of the past can so insidiously impact on the present. The real strength of the book, for me, lies in the slow unveiling of the dark and twisted past of Martha’s family through the flashbacks to the early days of her parent’s relationship. Johnstone focuses on how this relationship fostered such an atmosphere of resentment and hatred, resulting in her mother’s current emotional instability, her father’s suicide and the murderous role of another in the fragmentation of Martha’s life, which impacts so heavily on her life now. The writing is emotive and tinged with poignancy, as past events are gradually revealed, with Martha becoming one of the most empathetic characters I have encountered in crime fiction, in her role as a young woman progressively trying to improve herself from troubled beginnings, and seeking to find her place in a world so polluted by the actions of those closest to her. Along with Martha, there are other stand-out characters, not only the reappearance of fellow reporter Billy, with his own interesting past, whose relationship with Martha is both endearing and protective, but also their spiky and ballsy colleague at the newspaper, V, and Martha’s colourful brother Cal.

The other enjoyable aspect of this book, which it has to be said is quite sombre in tone, is Johnstone’s interspersing of references to particular music and bands, so influential in Martha’s parents’ fledgling relationship, and which keep Martha connected with the spirit of her father following his suicide. Indeed, during the period of reading this book, I felt compelled to revisit my old vinyl collection, for some of the bands mentioned and have even discovered a couple of new ones, which added further to my enjoyment of The Dead Beat. So, overall a bit of a hit with me all round, providing a reading experience that went far beyond the average thriller, and that did give me pause for thought with the larger issues and emotions that the book contained. Excellent.

(With thanks to Faber & Faber for the ARC)

 

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