Wednesday 16 September 2020

The Big Chill by Doug Johnstone @doug_johnstone @OrendaBooks #TheBigChill #TheSkelfs #BookReview

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.

The Big Chill by Doug Johnstone was published by Orenda Books (ebook 20 June 2020 and paperback on 20 August 2020). The Big Chill is the second in The Skelfs series.

I read and reviewed book one; A Dark Matter back in November last year and I absolutely loved it. This is a crime series quite unlike any other. A team of female private investigators, all from different generations of the same family who also happen to run an undertaker business. All set in the city of Edinburgh, and usually taking in the areas unseen by tourists.

Whilst The Big Chill can be read as a standalone, I'd suggest that anyone who hasn't yet read A Dark Matter should do so. You'll have the advantage of knowing more about this intriguing family, although the author does cleverly add in the important stages of the backstory within this novel too.

Dorothy is the head of the family now that her husband of fifty years is dead. She grew up in the US but has been in Scotland for many many years. Her divorced daughter Jenny is now living with her after some traumatic and life-changing events concerning her ex-husband Craig. Jenny's own daughter, Hannah also works in the business, as does her partner Indy, who is training to be an undertaker.
The Skelf women are strong minded and strong willed, they have overcome things that would slay many of us and are determined that they will become even stronger.

However, the memories of what Craig did to them are never far from their thoughts. Both Jenny and Hannah are dealing with guilt-laden grief at the death of an innocent young woman.

Johnstone tells his story through the individual voices of the three women and he really does excel in creating a relatable and genuine female voice, it's quite incredible at time how utterly realistic these voices are.

The story begins as Dorothy is carrying out her undertaking duties at a fairly run of the mill funeral. Everything changes when a speeding car hurtles across the burial ground and ends up embedded in the open grave. The driver is killed outright. After the shock has worn off, Dorothy becomes obsessed with finding out just who is the driver that she nicknames Jimmy X. Using her private investigator skills she begins to delve deeper into this mystery and uncovers some shocking truths that feature the rich and elite of Edinburgh. Meanwhile, both Jenny and Hannah are dealing with their own mysteries; the suspicious demise of an elderly professor and the aftermath of Craig's previous murderous spree. Add into the mix the disappearance of one of Dorothy's drumming students and the reader is thrust into the heart of a multi-layered, complex and incredibly clever plot.

Doug Johnstone does not shy away from the dark and the uncomfortable, yet he does with with an ease and compassion and fabulous sprinkle of dry Scottish humour too. Despite the serious issues uncovered by the Skelfs as the story progresses, there is a tenderness that runs all the way through it too.

The Big Chill is a fabulous follow up to what was one of my favourite books last year. This talented author can do no wrong in my eyes. His depiction of the complexities of a the female family relationship is wonderfully done, with empathy, warmth and some deliciously dark humour.  Roll on book three, I cannot wait!

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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