Doug Johnstone promises a dead good read

Thriller writer Doug Johnstone. Picture: Esme Allen
Thriller writer Doug Johnstone. Picture: Esme Allen
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SHE eagerly jots down everything that is being dictated to her over the phone, keen to get the facts right as she tries to impress her bosses on her first day.

But young obituary writer Martha gets more than she bargains for when the man on the other end of the line apparently shoots himself, making her automatically assume he has been dictating his own memorial.

Fortunately this is not a tale from the offices of the Evening News, but from the Scottish Standard – a fictional daily newspaper created in author Doug Johnstone’s vivid imagination.

The Dead Beat, which will be released on May 1, is Doug’s sixth novel since the father-of-two turned his back on nuclear physics to become an author.

Set in Edinburgh, the book has already won praise from his literary chums Irvine Welsh, Alan Glynn and Chris Brookmyre.

“It’s at that nervous stage at the moment,” admits Doug, from Portobello. “I know people are starting to read it, journalists and other authors, and you never really know how it’s going to go. I went back and read it recently and it’s actually funnier than I thought it would be, even though it’s about suicide and death and mental health. Martha is a pretty funny character.”

Doug follows the number one rule in the writers’ handbook – write about what you know.

“I use a lot of my own experiences in my books. It’s easier in one sense and adds a certain sense of veracity to the story if you can tap in to stuff from your own life,” Doug explains.

In The Dead Beat, central character Martha’s life is thrust into the world of journalism when she gets her first job, aged 19, on the obituaries desk of the Scottish Standard. Throughout the book, her life is intertwined with a 1990s grunge soundtrack through a series of flashbacks from her parents’ youth.

Both journalism and music have played important roles in Doug’s life. After giving up his job as a nuclear physicist working at Marconi/BAE Systems, he started working as a freelance journalist before embarking on his now flourishing writing career.

And long before all this, Doug was a musician, with a massive passion for the 90s grunge scene, almost appearing with his band, Cheese-grater, on the same bill as Nirvana when they played their low-key gig at The Southern Bar in December 1991.

Such was the impression that event made on Doug’s life that Kurt Cobain even makes a “cameo” at the infamous Southern gig in the novel.

“One of the reasons I wanted to write about grunge was to annoy people of my generation and make everyone feel old because they are now old enough to have kids the same age as Martha!” he laughs.

“This has the most music references in it than any of my other books. In it, Martha has a whole bunch of cassettes from her dead dad and plays them on an old Walkman.”

In fact, the music theme is so integral to the plot that Doug has created a special play list for the book – complete with music by The Breeders, Soundgarden and Teenage Fanclub.

The newspaper setting is something which also featured in Doug’s previous book, Hit and Run, which saw trainee crime reporter Billy Blackmore covering a news story that he had accidentally created when he hit someone with his car and tried to cover it up.

“The Dead Beat’s not a sequel to Hit and Run, but it inhabits the same kind of world,” he says. “It’s about the death of print journalism – I wanted to look at that.

“I became quite obsessed with reading obituaries. They are always this nice oasis where people say nice things about other people.

“But if you look at them, the vast majority of them are about well-to-do people. I became interested in the idea of writing obituaries for normal everyday people. Would people be interested in reading those? Are they just as valid?

“I’ve also had this idea for years about someone shooting themselves on the phone.”

Doug, who is already writing his seventh novel, is launching his book with a party at Looking Glass Books at the Quartermile on May 1, where he will be signing copies, as well as playing a couple of grunge covers. As you do.