The Skelf women live in the shadow of death every day, running the family funeral directors and private investigator business in Edinburgh. But now their own grief intertwines with that of their clients, as they are left reeling by 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…
And so we come to the fourth instalment of Doug Johnstone’s superlative crime series featuring the Skelf family, navigating the daily trials and tribulations in their businesses as both funeral directors and private investigators, and their knotty private lives. Following on from the excellent Dark Matter, The Big Chill and The Great Silence the series continues in its typically flawless style in Black Hearts, where once again these formidable women are engulfed in personal troubles, murder and its attendant mayhem…
Dorothy, the matriarch of the family, is on a much more even keel in this one, although still touched by sporadic moments of grief at the loss of her husband, she appears more settled in her strengthening relationship with detective Thomas Olssen, the cases she becomes involved in are not without their own problems, again making her draw on her seemingly inexhaustible tenacity and strength. I like her personal adage that,
“You had to keep moving forward, that was the only way to respect those who had gone. Keep living your imperfect life.”
Next is Jenny, Dorothy’s daughter, who having survived the harrowing events of the last book to a less resilient degree to her mother, is spiralling into destructive behaviour both mentally and physically, and discovering that the apparent finality of her previously abusive relationship has some more unwelcome events in store from beyond the grave. Hannah, granddaughter and daughter, recently married, and endeavouring to apply herself more to her studies, finds herself in the unwelcome sights of a stalker, where some incredibly peculiar and dangerous happenings unfold.
I think the real magic of this series as a reader is the way in which, with each book, Johnstone so astutely adds another layer of vulnerability or, conversely, another layer of personal strength to each of his female characters, as these particular events they are consumed by unfold. Jenny, in particular, seems so at a loss with the world in this one, it is truly heartbreaking to see the effects of her trauma on her behaviour, and how this threatens to unmoor her from her family, and the security they can give her. However, at the core of their survival lies the bond to one another, which stretches and threatens to break at numerous points, but at its heart remains solid despite the pressures they place upon it, and themselves.
Although this series is so driven by the female trinity at its centre, I think it’s worth mentioning the two subsidiary male characters, Thomas Olssen and Archie, who bring a stability and understated warmth to the lives of these frankly, at times, chaotic women, “The Skelfs were magnets for weird shit and Thomas had to handle the aftermath”. Also, I particularly liked the way that Archie, as an employee of the Skelfs in the funeral business, is given a greater moment in the sun in this one, and the tentative chance of redemption and peace for Jenny he provides with his tender concern for her.
Black Hearts would not be complete without Johnstone’s thoughtful and perfectly placed interludes of not only the corporeal, but the spiritual and astronomical too, taking the reader on a series of interesting and enlightening diversions. He carefully positions the fragility of the human condition and the raw beauty of the natural world, alongside little flights into the other-wordly in a spiritual sense, and then…bam…firmly roots us and our meagre, inconsequential place in a sprawling universe, so much of it as yet beyond our own comprehension.
Another joy of this series is that as much as the plot and characters carry you along so sublimely, you also get some wonderful potted lessons in astrophysics, and the technicalities of musicianship, including the ‘big dick energy’ of jazz, (love that) as well as name checking some brilliant musicians too. Definitely more big bang and banging tunes for your bucks… I love this series, and cannot praise it highly enough. My name is Raven and I am a #Skelfaholic, and very proud to be one too. Astronomically highly recommended.
Doug Johnstone is the author of eleven novels, most recently The Great Silence, the third in the Skelfs series- a series which has just been optioned for TV. In 2020, A Dark Matter, the first in the series, was shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year and the Capital Crime Amazon Publishing Independent Voice Book of the Year award. In 2019, his thriller Breakers was also shortlisted for the prize. 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 on Twitter @doug_johnstone and visit the author’s website here.
(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)
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