Source: Review copy
Publication: E-book 23 November. Paperback 23 January 2020 from Orenda Books
Three generations of women from the Skelfs family take over the family funeral-home and PI businesses in the first book of a taut, page-turning and darkly funny new series.
Meet the Skelfs: well-known Edinburgh family, proprietors of a long-established funeral-home business, and private investigators…
When patriarch Jim dies, it’s left to his wife Dorothy, daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah to take charge of both businesses, kicking off an unexpected series of events.
Dorothy discovers mysterious payments to another woman, suggesting that Jim wasn’t the husband she thought he was. Hannah’s best friend Mel has vanished from university, and the simple adultery case that Jenny takes on leads to something stranger and far darker than any of them could have imagined.
As the women struggle to come to terms with their grief, and the demands of the business threaten to overwhelm them, secrets from the past emerge, which change everything…
A compelling, tense and shocking thriller and a darkly funny and warm portrait of a family in turmoil, A Dark Matter introduces a cast of unforgettable characters, marking the start of an addictive new series.
I need to get something out of the way first, so please bear with me. A Dark Matter comes out in e-book in November and in paperback in January, though if you are eager Bert’s Books have early pre-Christmas copies available for order now, especially for those who want to start their own Jólabókaflóð.
So that means that A DARK MATTER is in the 2020 category for my Books of the Year, and BREAKERS is my Book of the Year for 2019. If that’s clear, we can move on. 🙂
SKELF NOUN : SCOTTISH
- a splinter or sliver of wood.
- a troublesome or annoying person
Regular readers of this blog will be in no doubt of how much I loved Doug Johnstone’s Breakers, which is my book of the year. Well, I am delighted to tell you that Doug’s writing just gets better and better.
This is Doug Johnstone in confident, narrative mode. The Skelfs (a particularly excellent name for a family) are three generations of women running a funeral parlour in Edinburgh which has a P.I. side business.
These women are glorious. Really well drawn, properly rounded, as far away from stereotypes as it’s possible to get. These are women I know; women I recognise in myself; women who make mistakes; who laugh; who are confident in their own skin. Most importantly they are women who do what we all do in times of adversity; we roll up our sleeves and find a way through.
As we meet the Skelfs, matriarch Dorothy has just lost her husband Jim, founder of the funeral parlour business. She is presiding over his somewhat unconventional funeral together with her daughter, divorcee Jenny and Jenny’s daughter, Hannah.
Johnstone gives us a number of cases to consider, running in parallel with each other. There are the cases that come into the P.I. Agency, mostly of the domestic type, as you’d expect. Then there’s the case of the strange and not insubstantial monthly payments going out of the Funeral Parlour account to a woman Dorothy has never heard of, discovered by her after Jim’s death. What’s that about then? Dorothy has a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach when she discovers it. Jim was hiding something from her and that gives her cause to wonder if she knew him at all?
Jenny is trying to find her role in life. She needs money and so she must take her place in the family’s businesses, but it’s not a role she saw herself in and she’s still smarting over the breakup from her husband and the death of her dad; all the while trying to find a way back to the person she used to be.
Meanwhile Hannah’s friend Mel disappears from University and Hannah is frantic with worry; this is so unlike Mel that she believes something bad must have happened.
There’s a lot of Doug Johnstone in this book. From drumming teacher and grandmother Dorothy to physics nerd Hannah, this is character driven storytelling and these are characters that just make you brim with happiness because they are so full of life.
Yes, they make mistakes, but they are all mistakes we would have made; borne of passion, or a need for answers or from a stubborn need to prove you can. This is confident, assured characterisation that carries the story brilliantly well and keeps the reader utterly immersed in the interwoven story strands.
I loved this book because I believed wholeheartedly in the characters and that meant I really got caught up in their stories, and felt their pain and their joy as if they were friends, which, in my case, Dorothy certainly could have been.
I can’t tell you how happy I am that this is the first book in a trilogy. Because I adore these women and I really want to hear more about their lives and their adventures.
Verdict: Confident characterisation and assured storytelling make A Dark Matter joyous, intelligent reading. Full of stories and with more than one moment that left me gasping, there’s a truth to these characters that is a thing of beauty and I am revelling in the sheer joy of this storytelling. There’s darkness, shade and not a little joy in this substantial read. A Dark Matter is a book that took me to my happy place and I can’t ask for more than that. It is also crying out to be made into a film or TV series. I’d watch these characters in a heartbeat.
Doug Johnstone is an author, journalist and musician based in Edinburgh. He’s had eight novels published, most recently Fault Lines. His previous novel, The Jump, was a finalist for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. Several of his other novels have been award winners and bestsellers, and he’s had short stories published in numerous anthologies and literary magazines.
His work has been praised by the likes of Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Irvine Welsh. Several of his novels have been optioned for film and television. Doug is also a Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow. He’s worked as an RLF Fellow at Queen Margaret University, taught creative writing at Strathclyde University and William Purves Funeral Directors. He mentors and assesses manuscripts for The Literary Consultancy and regularly tutors at Moniack Mhor writing retreat. Doug has released seven albums in various bands, and is the drummer for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He also reviews books for The Big Issue magazine, is player-manager for Scotland Writers Football Club and has a PhD in nuclear physics.