Interview: Doug Johnstone, author of The Dead Beat
Johnstone's sixth novel covers obituaries, the death of print journalism and mental health issues
'I always feel that if you're going to write a novel, you've got to be obsessed with what you're writing about,' says Doug Johnstone. 'This is a handful of obsessions that came together.'
The Dead Beat's obsessions include: obituaries ('they're like a little oasis of niceness among all the bullshit of newspapers'), the death of print journalism, and mental health issues – 'whether you make up who you are as you go along or if you're in thrall to your genetic legacy.'
It's Johnstone's sixth novel – his fourth in four years – and the themes come together in a fantastically fast-paced thriller. Set in Edinburgh, it zips between North Bridge and Duddingston, from the early 1990s to the present day. Martha is a journalism student and an electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) patient – and within her first few minutes as an intern at fictional newspaper The Standard, she witnesses a shockingly violent event.
As the mystery unfolds around her, she listens to her father's music collection on an old Walkman. The story flashes back to real gigs from local music history, including Nirvana's famous appearance at the Southern Bar in 1991 – a gig that Johnstone was at. 'Part of it's a joke between me and my friends,' Johnstone laughs, 'just to annoy everyone in my generation that gigs we still think of as being a couple of years ago are actually historical fiction.'
Fans of Johnstone's fourth novel, Hit and Run, will be pleased to see the reappearance of its characters Billy and Rose too, though The Dead Beat isn't a sequel. And it's this emphasis on great characters that makes the book such a memorable piece of noir. 'I'm not that interested in solving crimes,' Johnstone admits. 'I'm really interested in the people committing crimes and how you respond in the aftermath.'
The Dead Beat is out now published by Faber.