Doug Johnstone- A Dark Matter #BlogTour

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)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

Coastal Crime- Clare Carson- The Salt Marsh / Simon Booker- Without Trace

I don’t know.

You wait ages for crime thrillers set around the location of Dungeness, and then, like buses, three turn up at once.

So following my review in May for William Shaw-  The Birdwatcher  here are two more recommended reads that both draw on this haunting and desolate backdrop….

Carson_02_THE%20SALT%20MARSHSam Coyle’s father lived in the shadows – an undercover agent among the spies and radicals of Cold War London. That world claimed his life, and Sam is haunted by his absence. He left nothing behind but his enemies; nothing to his daughter but his tradecraft and paranoia. Now, her boyfriend Luke is missing too – the one person she could trust, has vanished into the fog on the Kentish coast. To find him, Sam must follow uncertain leads into a labyrinth of blind channels and shifting ground. She must navigate the treacherous expanse of the salt marsh…

I was absolutely blown away by Carson’s debut  Orkney Twilight which remains one of the most lyrical, perfectly plotted crime thrillers I have read to date. The Salt Marsh pretty much picks up from the events of the first book, but, fear not if you have not read Orkney Twilight as the author brings you up to speed quickly with the previous plot. It seemed to me that there was a perfect symmetry in this book, with Carson wholly appreciating the need to provide the reader with an intriguing mystery, but also to explore some more weightier themes both in the emotional facets of her young female protagonist, Sam, and the environmental issues that the disappearance of her boyfriend provides links to. The use of the coastal locations in this book (as Orkney was in the first book) firmly root us in the strange territory between the strength, desolate beauty, and mythical nature of the natural world, set against man’s mission to harness and use these natural resources for sometimes nefarious ends. Throughout the course of the Carson balances the scientific with the philosophical and the harnessing of the alchemical with themes of myth and superstition. It’s intelligent, involving, and raises the book above standard thrillers.

As Sam is increasingly drawn into a dark plot involving environmental activism, the memory and influence of her late father, an undercover operative, begins to put her in the orbit of his former employers who seek to malign or use her throughout the course of the book. Sam is an incredibly well-realised character, strong-minded and set apart from the rest of her family by her refusal to conform, or settle to anything meaningful or what is expected by others. To quote Star Wars (as one should in every review possible) the force is strong in her, and the  influence of her father resonates in her more than she at first realises. I love the balance Carson inputs in her character from moments of wilful stubbornness, to her sometimes emotional naivety, but always tempered by an admirable sense of right and wrong, and her determination to confront and challenge both. This also worked as an influence on the reader, as this book consistently makes you question what appears to be happening before you, drawing you into Sam’s confusion and her increasing distrust of those around her. My attention was held completely throughout the book, and I would urge you to read both Orkney Twilight and The Salt Marsh if you like your crime multi-faceted with a more literary leaning. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Head of Zeus for the ARC)

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WITHOUT-TRACEIn a change of pace, Without Trace is a humdinger of a thriller with more twists than a barrelful of adders. With summer holidays approaching and either being stuck in a caravan in rainy Rhyl, or on a flight to a more exotic beach vacation, this could be a perfect read…

Being practically impossible to review in terms of plot, due to the pitfall of numerous potential spoiler moments, I’ll steer clear of the plot as much as possible, as I read this in a vacuum avoiding every other review of it. What I would say is that from the outset, Booker has tremendous fun with his readers, all believing ourselves to be pretty good amateur detectives, in a murderous tale packed full of red herrings and twists aplenty.

As our intrepid heroine Morgan Vine, a fairly normal divorced mother of one, expends her entire strength into clearing the name of her childhood sweetheart, Danny Kilcannon, having campaigned for his release from prison, she is increasingly drawn into personal danger when her daughter disappears. Some would say that her daughter, Lissa, is such a charmless little madam, that we shouldn’t care too much about her fate, but Morgan is not to be thwarted. As her suspicions about Danny rise, and she gets drawn in deeper with two female detectives investigating Lissa’s disappearance, Morgan finds herself increasingly isolated and at physical harm. Is Danny really as innocent as she believes him to be, and just where the jiggins has Lissa gone?

This is a good old page turner, using the pace and strategic reveals so beloved of American authors like Linwood Barclay and Harlan Coben, and so leads to a book that one finds quite difficult to put aside as the energy and pacing of the plot drives you onwards. The characterisation has just enough clarity and depth to keep you intrigued by their personal travails, and Danny’s character in particular sways your empathy back and forth throughout. I will be honest and say that my incredulity was stretched as the end of the book approached, and the final denouement does take more than a bit of suspension of disbelief, as Morgan does suddenly morph into Lara Croft in a violent conclusion to the tale, but for all that, I quite enjoyed reading this entertaining thriller with its curve balls and false leads. Switch off, relax and enjoy the ride.

I still think the dead sheep was in on it though…

(With thanks to twenty7 for the ARC)