‘Martha was surrounded by death.’
That’s the opening line of my latest novel, The Dead Beat. You’d expect a crime novel to have death in it, of course, but The Dead Beat seems utterly infused with it. There aren’t many dead bodies, and not much in the way of explicit violence either, but death hovers over every page because Martha is an obituary writer.
Well, not quite. The book opens with the young journalist visiting her father’s grave, before jumping on the bus to her first day at work, where she gets thrown onto the obit desk. That bus journey took her along North Bridge in Edinburgh, where her father committed suicide weeks before. When she starts work another employee calls in, reads his own obituary down the phone, then apparently shoots himself.
That’s just the first twenty pages. There’s a lot going on in The Dead Beat, more than in my previous books, I think, despite the fact that this is my shortest novel. In the past I’ve been able to answer that tremble-inducing question ‘what’s your book about?’ with a snappy one-liner, Smokeheads was ‘Whisky Galore-meets-Deliverance’, for example.
Not so with The Dead Beat. I can’t work out if that makes it a better or a worse book. Hopefully better. It’s about obituaries and suicide, mental health issues and the legacy of genetics, the gap between generations, the death of print journalism, and some other stuff too, most likely.
It’s also, much to my surprise, quite funny. Despite the grim subject matter, there are a few laughs, mostly thanks to Martha’s acerbic attitude to the world around her. Martha doesn’t have her problems to seek. She suffers from severe depression and during the course of the novel she gets a couple of doses of electroconvulsive therapy at hospital in an effort to combat her mental problems. She has lost her father, is estranged from her mother, and fights with her twin brother all the time.
And yet I found her a joy to spend time with while writing the novel. Anyone who can strike up a bit of romance in the back of an ambulance while sitting over a man with half his face shot away can’t be all bad, right?
That’s right, there’s kind of an offbeat romance going on in The Dead Beat too, between Martha and Billy, the main character from my fourth novel Hit & Run. The Dead Beat isn’t exactly a sequel but it inhabits the same world as Hit & Run, has the same reckless, youthful momentum to it, maybe. And Rose, the most fun character from Hit & Run, turns out to have all the best secrets in The Dead Beat.
Why are so many people trying to kill themselves? Why is Martha’s mum so shut-off from the world? What does Rose know about Martha’s father? What happened twenty years ago that damaged everyone so much? And why is there so much grunge in this bloody book? Only one way to find out, folks.
The Dead Beat by Doug Johnstone is out now, £12.99 (Faber & Faber)