Wednesday, 30 April 2014

‘No one ever rages against the dying of the light.’ Billy Blackmore

Martha struggles with life. Her depression is a factor in all she does, so it seems rather fitting that, when she turns up for her first day at work at The Standard, she’s given a stand-in post covering the obituaries (the dead beat of the title). There’s not a great deal to learn and what she needs to know will be passed on by V, a confident American woman wrestler who happens to know just about all the ropes and all the ins and outs of the people who work at the paper.

As chance would have it, Martha happens to be on the desk when the actual obit writer calls in. It’s no ordinary call, however. In fact it’s so far out of the ordinary that it’s literally mind-blowing. The man at the other end of the line is calling in his suicide. The gun goes off and the call ends.

It’s in Martha’s blood to go and see if there’s anything she can do for the victim and also to follow a story, so she flies out of the office with one Billy Blackmore (of ‘Hit And Run’) to find out what the hell’s going on. To explain further, her investigative genes come from her journalist father, himself a recent suicide who took his life by jumping from North Bridge above Edinburgh’s Waverley Station.

At first glance, the mess that greets the pair in the obit writer’s home suggests little, but Martha can’t leave it alone.

What follows is the uncovering of the remarkable story of her family history, the darkness of which explains just why it’s been kept a secret for so long.

It would be difficult to talk about the plot without giving away key information, so I’ll pass on that.

What I can do is run down some of the aspects of it to explain why I enjoyed the read so much.

The present-day story is told from the point-of-view of Martha. It’s a treat to get to know her and to get to see some of the labyrinth of her mind. She has spirit and energy in spades. Her teenage angst and rebellion have just the right weight. Her patterns of thinking in terms of her depression are well handled and her inability to fully control her urges makes her a joy to get to know.

The pace of the story builds perfectly. The author gives out the pieces of the jigsaw at perfect moments, and even when most of them have been collected, the appetite created to understand the ‘why?’ and the ‘how?’ mean that the desire to get the full picture is constantly heightened. This full picture is only fully revealed right at the end, which means it’s a wild snowball ride all the way to the final pages.

All of the characters are extremely well drawn, including those who are only minor.

Alongside Martha’s adventure, there’s another very enjoyable strand to the book. Johnstone cleverly indicates the change of period to 1991 through the use of gig tickets, including to some rather amazing events that actually took place in Edinburgh and Glasgow at the time. This story tells the story of Martha’s mum, Elaine, and gives the explanation of the events that are unfolding and unravelling in the present day. This is told with strong insight and, for anyone who was ever into live music and enjoyed the indie-scene, this other dimension will provide a real treat.

Among other things, this change in time periods shows some of the huge contrast between the technologies of then and now (‘In a time before her [Martha]...when news was printed on paper. As foreign to her as the Stone Age.’). It also allows for some exploration of the generation gap, the young ones looking at their parents as older, more sedentary beings rather than as people who once had their own formative years and may well have out-rebelled and out-done their children into the bargain.

This is intelligent, gripping, thoughtful fiction that demonstrates how a thriller can be so much more than a clinical dot-to-dot. Not only will have you racing to the end, it’ll give you plenty of food for thought along the way.

I was very fortunate indeed to be sent a review copy of ‘The Dead Beat’, because having loved the novel ‘Hit And Run’ I’d have been buying a copy on the day of release. If you haven’t been quite so lucky, I’d urge you to get yourself one and give yourself a mighty fine read. Soon as.

1 comment:

  1. Plot sounds spot on and I can always use a little more "intelligent, gripping, thoughtful fiction." Thanks, Nigel.