Source: Review copy
Publication: 20 June 2020 from Orenda Books
ISBN-13: ISBN-13: 978-1913193348
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 that matriarch 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 sucked into an unbearable darkness – but could the real threat be to themselves?
Following three women as they deal with the dead, help the living and find out who they are in the process, The Big Chill follows A Dark Matter, book one in the Skelfs series, which reboots the classic PI novel while asking the big existential questions, all with a big dose of pitch-black humour.
I loved A Dark Matter, the first in the Skelfs series and am thrilled that The Big Chill is, if anything, better than that cracker of a book. I love the Chandleresque title to begin with.
Then there are the big themes that run through this book, but brought in with the lightest of all touches. Life and death; being and nothingness are all part of Johnstone’s wickedly funny and very dark crime thriller. In other hands, this could be heavy stuff, but with Johnstone’s deft touch we are treated to quantum mechanics and cosmic evolution alongside murder, disappearing students and a deadly driver.
This is a writer who is in his stride; time and time again now he is hitting and elevating his stride, really finding his voice as he brings us characters we care about and are learning to love rather a lot. Women you can laugh with and cry for; women whose are more than cyphers on a page but who in our world you’d want to get to know better and spend a lot of time with.
My personal favourite is Dorothy, a 70 year old grandmother from California, but long since moved to Edinburgh and who was married to Jim Skelf, the undertaker whose passing started A Dark Matter. Dorothy is a drummer and she’s developing rather a close relationship with a local detective, which certainly does not hurt the Skelf’s burgeoning P.I. business, though it sometimes doesn’t help it, either.
The Big Chill can be read as a stand-alone, but you’ll enjoy it more if you have first read A Dark Matter. Johnstone has carried through the strong sense of grief that came from A Dark Matter and we now find the women in a pretty raw and emotionally vulnerable state. The death of Jim, the patriarch, never allowed them fully to grieve because of the trauma that was inflicted on them shortly thereafter – affecting them all in different ways. This portrait of grieving is so truthful, so authentic that it hurts and the reader finds Jenny struggling to move on with her life and in a new relationship, while clearly still distraught and Hannah, the physics student, is lost in a world she’s finding it hard to come to terms with, never mind get on with her studies.
They need each other, but they are individually so fractured that it’s hard for them to comfort each other and Hannah’s relationship with her partner Indy is really difficult as Hannah withdraws into herself, shutting Indy and the world, out.
Archie, their chief mortician is struggling with his own grief. Never was there so much death in the midst of life as right now and even life isn’t offering much pleasure, save perhaps for Einstein, their newly adopted dog.
But the work is still coming in and each woman has a project of their own to investigate as Johnstone shows us the resilience of this family as they find ways to come to terms with events by ensuring that they are not victims but active participants in their own lives who will seize their moments and find a path through their grief and upset to solve a mystery and at the same time restore their own confidence.
I’m conscious that I have made this sound very bleak, but it’s actually not that at all. It is in fact, quite dark but it is also dramatic, sometimes tense, often chilling and downright riveting. It’s only because you get wrapped up in these women’s lives that you tend, as a reader, to empathise with what they must be feeling.
Johnstone has a fantastic narrative arc that layers the women’s stories one upon another as they strive to stay above the grind and do some powerful good against the odds. I think it is that effort to keep going; to make a difference that marks them out as family unit determined not to be ground down.
Along the way, there is a lot of dark humour that again elevates the narrative, making something very special indeed
Verdict: Shocking, chilling, raw, dark and funny, this is Johnstone riding high on the crest of a wave. His writing is superb, his plotting impeccable and his characterisation to die for. I really don’t want this to be just a trilogy….
Doug Johnstone is an author, journalist and musician based in Edinburgh. He’s had eight novels published, most recently Fault Lines. His previous novels, Breakers and The Jump, were finalists 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, Chris Brookmyre, 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.