How have I come this far in my reading life without reading Doug Johnstone? The Skelfs are the family I didn’t even know I was missing, but now can’t imagine my reading life without. To prepare for reading the second novel in Johnstone’s Skelf series, I made the decision to read the first novel entitled A Dark Matter. I couldn’t possibly have imagined this incredible group of women, but now I feel like I know them personally. Set within the city of Edinburgh, this is a family of undertakers and private investigators. Just to set up the kind of family they are, the author places their residence and place of work at No 0 – somewhere that doesn’t exist. Grandmother Dorothy is a Californian lured to Edinburgh after falling in love with Jimmy Skelf who has passed away at the beginning of book one. Dorothy works in the funeral business with employee Archie, but also takes on PI duties and in her spare time teaches spunky young girls to play the drums. Mum Jenny is at a loose end so comes into the family business after her father dies. She jumps into the PI business with both feet, which is how she seems to do most things. Granddaughter Hannah is studying physics at Edinburgh University and lives with her girlfriend Indy. She has a good relationship with her parents and her grandmother. The first book concerns the disappearance of Hannah’s uni friend Mel and the shock when her killer is revealed is seismic, hitting all the Skelf family hard.
The beginning of The Big Chill reads like the explosive ending of most books. In a scene as comical as it is tragic, Dorothy and Archie are overseeing a routine funeral at the cemetery when sirens start moving closer and drowning out the service. The guests and undertakers stare aghast as a van driven at high speed forces its way through the cemetery gates followed by the police. As the van careers towards them, mourners start to scatter and Dorothy narrowly misses being ploughed into ground, as the van speeds straight into the grave nose first. Dorothy clambers in to check on the driver and finds he has died instantaneously from a head injury. However, what does survive is a scruffy Collie dog she names Einstein to sit alongside Schroedinger the cat. She immediately offers the Skelfs’ services for the man she names Jimmy X but she would like to find a little more out about him before she conducts his funeral. So, Dorothy sets out, with Einstein in tow, to find out how Jimmy X ended up living in a van that literally ‘ended up’ in an open grave.
Of course, this is only one of the mysteries the women are investigating. Hannah makes friends with an elderly physics professor at university when he asks if she’ll help with a memorial for Mel. Not long after they are performing dual duties for him too, when he dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Hannah can’t accept his death and even if it is just a displacement activity, begins to look into his personal life for answers. Dorothy is overstretched with cases when one of her drumming students doesn’t turn up for practice. This is so unusual because Abi loves to drum and has never missed a lesson. When she visits Abi’s home she is told that she was unwell, but Dorothy senses an undercurrent in the air and eventually finds our that Abi has run away. In order to find her, 70 year old Dorothy will have to start thinking like a 14 year old girl, which isn’t easy when the back ache doesn’t go away as quickly as it used to. The scars of an assault in the previous novel are not just mental.
Hanging over them all is the trial of Mel’s killer, known intimately to the Skelf women and still keeping a hold over them where he can. Not only did he kill the pregnant Mel, but when found out he attacked Jenny, stabbing her in the stomach and beat Dorothy. He has found a psychiatrist to claim he was incapacitated by mental illness at the time of the original killing. Even worse he lures Jenny to visit him, then presses charges when she assaults him. In the aftermath, Hannah is drowning. She’s well supported by Indy, but can’t sleep, feels anxious and when under pressure has panic attacks and passes out. It may take a seismic change to shake her from personalising all these difficult life experiences and thinking she is the only victim. She is having counselling, but there’s so much to unpick and she is in danger of ignoring the one person who helps her most. The women usually gather at the end of the day in the kitchen and catch each other up on the days events, but when even that ritual starts to fall apart Dorothy knows her family are stretched to breaking point. Yet, everyone has to heal in their own time and in their own way. She is wondering whether there is life after Jimmy, and whether her long held friendship and working relationship with a certain Swedish police officer, could become more?
These women are great characters. They’re tough, but still vulnerable. Full of quirky detail and boundless energy. They are also wonderfully good at picking up ‘waifs and strays’. They try not to judge people. I loved Jenny, trekking round homeless shelters and approaching groups in the street, but stopping to pass the time of day or joining a group of homeless men in a beer. As someone who is also very good at collecting people, I know how much it widens horizons, teaches us about our own preconceptions and sometimes brings unexpected, but wonderful friends. Their arms and their home are open. I found myself thinking a lot about the wonderfully patient and wise Indy, who comes into contact with the Skelfs as a teenager organising her parents funeral after a car accident. She is always quietly working in the background: cooking mouthwatering curries when Hannah hasn’t eaten; taking the reins at funerals when private investigating takes over; listening to bereaved family and respecting the person who died with so much attention to detail. There are such hidden depths here and I found myself hoping that Indy is featured and explored more in later novels.
I loved the Edinburgh backdrop. In fact it becomes a character in its own right from the touristy areas, to the student quarter, to the areas that missed regeneration, this is such a varied and richly atmospheric city. I don’t know it well but I feel this has taken me under that tourist facade to find something more interesting. We also see such a variety of people from those on the streets to those who in academia or in private education. Death is a great leveller though and these people are often side by side once they reach Skelf’s undertakers. We also see that these extremes can all be found in one person; there isn’t a ‘type’ that becomes homeless or commits a murder. I also find the way Hannah makes sense of her world through science really interesting. She muses on quantum suicide and whether we, like Schroedinger’s Cat, can be alive and dead at the same time. People often think that science is anathema to concepts like faith, hope and a belief in God. However, there is beauty and wonder in everything Hannah knows about space.
What I take away most from this book is the way the author writes with bluntness, but also kindness, acceptance and wonder about the human condition and the strange galaxy we call home. Hannah muses on the end of the universe with her counsellor:
‘stars will stop forming, the sun will wink out, the solar system will collapse. Then in the black-hole era galaxies disband, all proton matter decays, supermassive black holes swallow everything, then they’ll evaporate too, all the energy and matter in the cosmos gone […] it’s called the big chill’.
Hannah comments that it’s not such a bad way to go, but her counsellor reminds her that it’s a long way into the future. Dorothy has the same thoughts as her mind is flooded with images of everything they’ve experienced. She has felt the cold, icy creep of death:
‘death so close that she could feel its breath on her neck, could smell it every day when she woke, could feel its icy touch spreading from her mind to her limbs’.
So she sits behind her drums, plays the Black Parade album by My Chemical Romance, and starts to tap out a rhythm until she can feel the music within her, warming her veins and bursting to life. While we’re here, she concludes, we have to find a way to keep living. This is an explosive and enthralling novel, character driven and full of life, and death.