Source: Review copy
Publication: 19 June (e-book) 19 August p/back
My thanks to Orenda Books for an advance copy for review purposes
The discovery of a human foot in an Edinburgh park, the inexplicable circumstances of a dying woman, and the missing daughter of Jenny’s violent ex-husband present the Skelf women with their most challenging – and deadly – cases yet…
Keeping on top of the family funeral directors’ and private-investigation businesses is no easy task for the Skelf women, and when matriarch Dorothy discovers a human foot while walking the dog, a perplexing case presents itself … with potentially deadly results.
Daughter Jenny and grand-daughter Hannah have their hands full too: The mysterious circumstances of a dying woman lead them into an unexpected family drama, Hannah’s new astrophysicist colleague claims he’s receiving messages from outer space, and the Skelf’s teenaged lodger has yet another devastating experience.
Nothing is clear as the women are immersed ever deeper in their most challenging cases yet. But when the daughter of Jenny’s violent and fugitive ex-husband goes missing without trace and a wild animal is spotted roaming Edinburgh’s parks, real danger presents itself, and all three Skelfs are in peril.
I approached this book with some trepidation. I loved both A Dark Matter and The Big Chill and so was eager to read The Great Silence. Yet, at the same time, I knew I did not want this series to end. I have to say though, as far this trilogy goes, The Great Silence is an absolutely perfect end, bringing the narrative arc to a close in a way that mirrors the way the trilogy opened.
This is as perfect a book as I have read in a long time. The women are so beautifully and richly drawn that they feel real to me. They could be my friends and neighbours. These are women I care about and I understand them, have felt the way they feel and this book made me cry for them, too.
Over the course of three books I have watched them grow and seen them suffer. Their lives mirror our own and we recognise them all the better for it. Their health, their emotions, their concerns are so universal and utterly believable we see ourselves in them. In my case, it is Dorothy, but others will identify with their own character.
Johnstone packs a huge amount into this book; there are multiple cases and so many levels that give us a depth and a richness that is unsurpassable. These are women you engage with on an emotional level, but somehow Johnstone manages to elevate the book beyond that; building in some of the big philosophical and scientific questions and even occasionally proffering answers. When Hannah takes on a case, you can see the way she has matured and developed through the way she handles it with sensitivity, using her scientific brain and her life experience to understand the problem and find a way to resolve it.
Johnstone has delivered a superbly plotted book with great themes and a number of tense storylines all beautifully woven together and has brought them together with an expertise that shows what a master of his craft he has become. There’s humour too that helps relieve some of the unbearable tension, but it’s a humour that is inclusive, that draws you in closer to these women; makes you love them more.
Even as you love and empathise with them, you find that you are caught up in the horror that they experience and sometimes there is a shocking brutality to this narrative that leaves you gasping with shock and fear for these characters. It is visceral and as a reader, that sense of tragedy hits you full force without comfort. This is a book whose essence lies in family, love, pain and betrayal.
Yet for all that, what I came away with, as the tears rolled down my face, was an ineffable sense of love. Love between generations. The pain of being young and knowing hurt, betrayal and cruelty, tempered by the love of family and friends. Love between lovers and between parent and child. Love for the craft of a job well done and love for science and reaching to the stars to ask some very big questions. Love for Edinburgh and its environs shines through here, too.
Verdict: The Great Silence has left me in awe of Johnstone’s immense talent, but also bereft because I may never see these characters again. I can only hope that these women I have come to love have gone to recuperate and regroup because I so do not want to contemplate a life without Dorothy, Jenny, Hannah and Indy in it. Are you listening, Doug?
Doug Johnstone is the author of twelve previous novels, most recently The BigChill (2020). Several of his books have been bestsellers and three, A DarkMatter (2020), Breakers (2019) and The Jump (2015), were shortlisted for theMcIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions over the last decade, and has been an arts journalist for over twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with five albums and three solo 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.
Follow Doug on Twitter @doug_johnstone
Visit his website: dougjohnstone.com