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?
When I reviewed A Dark Matter, the first of this trilogy, I knew from the outset that Doug Johnstone had produced something very special indeed. Focusing the book on this triumvirate of utterly compelling female characters, grandmother, mother and granddaughter, running their dual businesses of funeral home and private investigation, the scene was set for an usual and original series, and the second book, The Big Chill, does not disappoint…
The characterisation of the three generations of the Skelf family, Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah is damn near flawless, with Johnstone capturing perfectly the lives, joys, loves, losses and insecurities of the women with an astute touch. His depiction of each is unfailingly perceptive, bringing their individual character traits to the fore, whilst never losing sight of the disparate differences between them that comes with age and experience. Dorothy teetering on the edge of a new attachment, but still in thrall to the memory of her late husband, Jenny trying to put the duplicitous actions of her ex-husband behind them and embarking on a new relationship, and Hannah who carries all the indignance yet insecurity of youth in her relationship with her mother and partner.
All three are still working through the fallout of the previous book, and as much as you want to see them put this behind them, the past has a nasty way of informing their present, as events play out. As all three seemingly operate in a separate space, due to the differing investigations and trouble they find themselves in, but, there is always an unerring feeling of connection between them. As events threaten to overwhelm them individually, and bring further troubles to their door, this bond which waxes and wanes, but never disappears, is the glue that binds them, and bolsters their personal and emotional strength. Johnstone depicts all this with a sure-footedness and efficacy that imprints these characters fully in our minds, and as such draws them into our consciousness resonating with our empathy, and heightening our connection to them.
As much as I enjoyed the story and plotting, with the individual travails and peril the women experience, I always feel with Johnstone’s writing that something deeper dwells at the heart of his books. Somewhere, from the mists of time, I recall the following quote (reportedly from an Irish headstone) which captures for me the essence of these books to date, “death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal” and these themes, intrinsically bound up with the notions of grief and mourning, seems to me at least, the driving force behind this series. Aside from the central setting of the funeral home, which by its very definition is a harbinger of death and loss, every character is experiencing some kind of love, loss or pervading aspect of grief that arrives in the wake of the experiences they have. Grief for loved ones and lost relationships, or personal grief caused by betrayal, deception or the uncovering of unpalatable secrets, and equally how to come to terms with all these different aspects of loss and sadness is handled sensitively throughout. Grief is the surest measure of love there is.
However, far from overpowering our perception of these characters with the darker aspects of their experiences, Johnstone cleverly insinuates touches of dark humour, and moments of pure joy into the narrative too. Again, the author draws on his scientific background too, to introduce some more cosmic ruminations, which are both enlightening and thought-provoking, and seek to highlight our own small space in an ever changing universe. All of these strands in The Big Chill lead to a rounded and ultimately satisfying read, underscored by his affectionate and, at times, raw depiction of the book’s Edinburgh setting. Highly recommended. How could it not be?
(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)
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