Wednesday 20 November 2019

A Dark Matter by Doug Johnstone . @doug_johnstone #ADarkMatter @OrendaBooks #BookReview


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.

A Dark Matter by Doug Johnstone is published by Orenda Books; in ebook on 23 November 2019, followed by the paperback on 23 January 2020.

So, what have we here then?  A family of undertakers who carry out private investigation jobs as a sideline. Three generations of women; set in Edinburgh. It all sounds very cosy doesn't it?  A bit Hamish MacBeth maybe, especially as there's rumours of a television series.

STOP!  This couldn't be further away from the cosy mysteries that all turn out well in the end for Hamish at all.  Oh no, A Dark Matter is probably more like a cross between Trainspotting and Rebus; hard hitting, straight to the point and magnificently written.

Jim Skelf is no more. He died suddenly and the story opens at his somewhat unusual funeral. Jim has left behind two businesses; the funeral directors and a private investigation firm; sounds odd, but as Jim himself said; bereaved families often have lots of questions to be answered.

It's down to his widow Dorothy, their divorced middle-aged daughter Jenny, and her daughter Hannah to keep the business running, but Jim has left more than just the business. He's left quite a few questions of his own to be answered. Dorothy is wondering if Jim really was the man she thought he was, even though they'd been together for fifty years.  Jenny would rather be anywhere else than back in her childhood home, but needs must and she doesn't have the money to keep her flat running. Young Hannah is anxious when her room mate Mel doesn't return home and this soon becomes her first PI assignment.

Doug Johnston really is a master at his craft. His ability to portray three female characters is just stunning. Each of them, all of a different generation are really quite perfect; believable, likeable and so carefully created. There's a bit of the author in all of them too; the sweary Scot, the rock n roll drummer and the physics nerd; he carefully incorporates these themes into the story, and it's done so very well.

As Dorothy learns more about Jim, and Jenny investigates a man whose wife suspects him of cheating, the story begins to get a little darker. Along with the unexpected truths that Hannah discovers about Mel; there's a whole lot going on here.

There are some jaw-dropping, and quite shocking reveals along the way. The author deals with some issues that are rarely touched upon, and does it with a sophistication that is breath taking. 

Dark and brilliantly written, the layers are exposed, carefully and with great skill. Both the characters and the plot are convincing and kept me on my toes throughout. Deliciously chilling, with a wry humour running throughout.  A Dark Matter is toxic, unsettling and just perfect. I loved it and recommend it highly.  Bravo Mr Johnstone! 

Doug Johnstone is the author of ten novels, most recently Breakers (2018), which was longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. 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, 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.
Follow Doug on Twitter @doug_johnstone and visit his website:

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