Source: Review copy
Publication : 29 September 2022 from Orenda Books
My thanks to Orenda Books for an advance copy for review
The Skelf women live in the face of death every day, running a funeral directors and private investigators firm in Edinburgh, and their own grief intertwines with that of their clients as they reel from shocking past events.
A fist-fight by an open grave leads Dorothy to investigate the possibility of a faked death, while a young woman’s obsession with Hannah threatens her relationship with Indy and puts them both in mortal danger. An elderly man claims he’s being abused by the ghost of his late wife, while ghosts of another kind come back to haunt Jenny from the grave…pushing her to breaking point.
As the Skelfs struggle with increasingly unnerving cases and chilling danger lurks close to home, it becomes clear that grief, in all its forms, can be deadly….
Oh my! Just when you thought you couldn’t love the Skelfs more, Doug Johnstone finds a way to turn up the heat. I love this series and I adore these three generations of women who are both funeral directors and part time Private Investigators.
Things have moved on a little since we last met the Skelfs. One of the extended family is no longer with us. Hannah and Indy have cemented their relationship. Dorothy and Thomas continue to make each other happy and Jenny…well Jenny is a mess of unquantifiable proportions.
I’ve said before that these 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. Their concerns are so universal and utterly believable we see ourselves in them.
Edinburgh too continues to be a terrific character and roots this story in superbly drawn time and place.
Black Hearts is multi-layered book with a number of cases running through the book. Dorothy is investigating a missing man; Hannah seems to have acquired a stalker and an elderly man believes his wife is hurting him. Jenny, meanwhile, is hurting so badly her self-destructive behaviour is worrying everyone; even her therapist.
There’s a very real sense of foreboding runs through this book, stemming from events surrounding Jenny’s husband, Craig. It hangs over you and all the time I was reading I could feel the tension ramping up. It was as if there was a steel band around my chest, constricting every time I turned a page, making it harder to breathe. This is suspense that is truly palpable.
The cases in themselves are fascinating, especially so for Udo, the elderly man whose daughter, Willow has come to help him. But it is the sense of our place in the cosmos; the idea that there are so many things in the world and beyond that we have, as yet, no understanding of that makes this a special read. Life, love, death, science and belief all come together to create impact and resonance that engages the reader, brings empathy to the fore and really makes you care about the outcome for the characters.
Nothing here is easy; there are no pat answers. Life and death hurt and that pain is here on the page. But there is also love and joy and compassion and understanding. It’s easy to love these characters because you could be one of them.
Terrific, layered plotting, fabulous characters, some big shocks that really create a sense of drama and an awesome sense of place all combine with great mysteries to bring an overwhelming sense that science and physics are helping us to understand how much we don’t yet know about the world we live in.
Verdict: I am running out of superlatives for this cracking, unmissable series. I adore the Skelfs, and am an unshamed #Skelfaholic (I even have the t-shirt). Black Hearts is outstanding. I loved it with a passion and Black Hearts is Johnstone’s best yet in this superb series which should be winning awards all over the place.
Doug Johnstone is the author of twelve previous novels, most recently The Big Chill (2020). Several of his books have been bestsellers and three, A Dark Matter (2020), Breakers (2019) and The Jump (2015), were shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. A Dark Matter, the first in Doug’s first-ever series, was also shortlisted for the Capital Crime/Amazon Publishing Readers Awards. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions over the last decade – including at a funeral parlour ahead of writing A Dark Matter – 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.