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…
So, where to begin with A Dark Matter, as Doug Johnstone once again shows the complexity and diversity of his writing, making him one of the most accomplished writers in the crime genre at the moment. You genuinely never know where his writing is going to lead you, and always has the power to surprise…
I must confess to not knowing where to start with this one, as this is the book which has come closest to rivalling The Jump my favourite of Johnstone’s books to date. I think for my review I could easily just concentrate on the intuitive, realistic and pretty near flawless characterisation that Johnstone creates with this triumvirate of forthright and engaging dynasty of women. From matriarch, to daughter, to granddaughter, there is a real sense of the reader being utterly drawn into their world, coming to terms with the loss of their husband, father and grandfather Jim, and using their combined emotional strength and survival instincts to overcome grief, and emotional dislocation. It’s a rare thing indeed for a male author to so capture the real essence of what it is to be female, how we navigate life and relationships and the particular bonds that we form be it with those closest to us, and those that we encounter in other spheres of our lives.
I felt the characterisation was incredibly intuitive and truthful, and completely drew me into these women from the outset, reeling from grief, but with an innate sense of the will to do good, and to right wrongs. I liked the way that although for much of the book they are following their own paths, there was a real strength and spirit of understanding that arose as the story progressed as we see them navigating the stages of grief and abandonment, before a dawning realisation that their sum of the parts was an altogether more powerful thing indeed. By following this path with the characters, this a wonderfully structured and multi-layered narrative, as we pivot from one woman to the other and the varying strands of investigation they all embark on to keep both sides of the family business ticking over. I also enjoyed the way that Johnstone also puts them under an incredible amount of stress throughout, strengthening their ingenuity and forcing them into courses of action that only heighten their resilience and repairing the tears in their previous relationships with one another.
From the first unusual, but singularly life affirming scene, which so brilliantly undermines the solemnity and overblown ritual of traditional funereal rites, to Johnstone’s ingrained exploration of the inseparable relation of death to life the book addresses some weighty themes indeed. The author’s own background in science imbues the book with some interesting digressions into the world of science and one paragraph in particular regarding dark matter being the glue of the universe, also sparked in me the feeling that in this book there was a parallel feeling of love and family loyalty, particularly in the female characters, of being the glue that held them together, albeit with a few bumps and challenges along the way. Obviously, with the central location of the book, there is much about life and death to muse on along the way, and teamed with the diversions into science there is a real sense of continuity and circularity in Johnstone’s observations on mortality and our place in an endless universe which is fascinating.
As I mentioned in my introduction there is such a diversity in Johnstone’s writing that each book is like a present waiting to be unwrapped. The only consistent theme I can detect in his work is the love of Edinburgh, the good and the bad, and the attention to its landscape and environs is a constant presence in this book and others. He is a genuinely surprising writer, and I always look forward to what he will produce next, and what dark and twisting explorations of the human spirit he will take us on next. Highly recommended.
(With thanks to Orenda for the ARC)
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