Haunted by their past, the Skelf women are hoping for a quieter life. But running both a funeral directors’ and a private investigation business means trouble is never far away, and when a car crashes into the open grave at a funeral Dorothy is conducting, she can’t help looking into the dead driver’s shadowy life.
While Dorothy uncovers a dark truth at the heart of Edinburgh society, her daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah have their own struggles. Jenny’s ex-husband Craig is making plans that could shatter
the Skelf women’s lives, and the increasingly obsessive Hannah has formed a friendship with an elderly professor that is fast turning deadly.
But something even more sinister emerges when a drumming student of Dorothy’s disappears, and suspicion falls on her parents. The Skelf women find themselves immersed in an unbearable darkness – but could the real threat be to themselves?
Fast-paced, darkly funny, yet touching and tender, the Skelf family series is a welcome reboot to the classic PI novel, whilst also asking deeper questions about family, society and grief.
The Skelf women were back and oh how pleased I was to see them. When we first met them they were reeling from the death of Jimmy, husband, father, Grandfather and head of Skelf funeral and Private Investigator business. If that wasn’t enough they were also recovering from the murderous antics of Jenny’s ex husband Craig. Would Johnstone have moved them on and did he have anymore adventures in store for them?
The answers were mixed and Johnstone used the Skelf women’s individual voices, a brilliant tactic Johnstone used to great effect, to delve deep into their individual psyche’s uncovering their own personal anguish and worries.
Dorothy, was as wonderful as ever, caring, compassionate, her thoughts of others before herself. Johnstone still showed her vulnerabilities, often bashed out to the rhythm of her drumming, which still makes me smile as I imagine a seventy plus year old beating her worries away.
Jenny, I wasn’t too sure about, I felt she was still processing events, still unsure of her place and her future and had a long way to go before finding peace.
Her daughter Hannah was, perhaps the most mixed up, the one who needed girlfriend Indy to prop her up, cast adrift in the maelstrom of past events.
So, we had three women all with their problems, and they only grew tenfold as Johnstone opened the novel with one of the most dark, and slightly humourous openings I have encountered in a novel. Who an earth would think of a car crashing into an open grave, resulting in a dead body and the acquisition of a one eyed dog named Einstein, who was, for me, the underlying star of the novel.
If the search for the identity of the dead man wasn’t enough, Johnstone also threw in a missing girl and father, a professor and the ultimate villain of the novel, Craig. Jenny’s ex-husband, Craig, was the ultimate pantomime villain, nice on the outside, cold, calculating and utterly murderous on the inside, a constant pain in the life’s of Jenny, and Hannah. I liked the way he didn’t take up the whole of the novel, just lurked on the sidelines, a volcano that bubbled away until Johnstone chose a time for him to explode across the page,
As the women each pursued their own investigations, it became clear that Johnstone had cleverly matched them to their own personal issues, a way for them to examine who they were, what past events had meant for them and how the future might look. He touched on issues prevalent in today’s society from homelessness, to broken families, the idea that wealth didn’t necessarily mean happiness, and indeed sexuality and the unwillingness of some to accept the path we chose.
For all its seriousness, The Big Chill had those wonderfully dark humorous moments that Johnstone is so good at, the macabre backroom workings of a funeral home, that for me were totally fascinating and the traditional good old private investigations. Johnstone’s ability to balance the myriad plot lines was admirable, with the subtle blurring of lines that built to an unending crescendo that left us slightly hanging, with the knowledge that Johnstone had more instore for the Skelf women.
I would like to thank Orenda Books for a copy of The Big Chill to read and review and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting My Bookish Blogspot to participate in the blogtour.
About the author
Doug Johnstone is the author of more ten novels, most recently Breakers (2019), which has been shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year and A Dark Matter (2020), which launched the Skelfs series. Several of his books have been bestsellers and award winners, and his work has been praised by the likes of Val McDermid, Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions – including a funeral home, which he drew on to write A Dark Matter – and has been an arts journalist for twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with five albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He’s also player-manager of the Scotland Writers Football Club. He lives in Edinburgh.