Why is it always so difficult to write blog posts for books that I absolutely love?? I have already created two new hashtags for this third novel in the Skelf family series. The first was #bookbereavement, because when I finished it I wanted to turn straight back to the first page and start again. The second was #Skelfaholic and I am a fully paid up member. It is agreed that if this series ends (please no!) then we Skelfaholics will be holding a wake by drinking whiskey in a funeral home, followed by star-gazing at the observatory. It’s hard to put across how much I love the Skelf women, their cases, and the way they manage to conduct their funeral business with such dignity, and their investigation business with more balls than most men. I read this book almost as soon as I received it, and I’ve been sitting on it excitedly ever since, desperately trying not to say anything until the blog tour. Now I can happily say Doug Johnstone has done it again. This is a fantastic read.
For those who are new to the series, the Skelf women are three generations living under the same roof: Dorothy the grandmother, Jenny the mother, and Hannah the granddaughter. They ‘live above the shop’; their businesses being a strange mix of funeral directors and private investigators. Oh and Dorothy is a music teacher too, so there are often teenagers wandering in and out and playing the drums. In fact there are often waifs and strays under the Skelf’s roof. Hannah’s girlfriend Indy was one of their waifs, brought into the fold when her parents died and the Skelfs organised their funeral. She now looks after the funeral business with the same calm and dignity she brings to Hannah’s life. Einstein the dog arrived when a police chase ended with a van crashing nose first into one of their graves, during the funeral. The dog was in the van and with his owner now dead, he became part of the Skelf household and a companion of Schroedinger, the cat. Jenny mainly works on the private investigation side, but has a lot of her time taken up by her ex and Hannah’s father, Craig. He escaped prison and is possibly closer than they think. Finally, there’s Hannah, starting her PhD with the astrophysics department and pondering the question of why other life in the universe has never tried to contact us – the ‘Great Silence’ of the title.
As usual the book begins with a strange event. Dorothy takes Einstein for a walk in the park and he fetches a human foot, even more strange is that it appears to be embalmed. This embroils Dorothy in a very unusual case that could be deadly. Jenny is dealing with the aftermath of her ex-husband’s actions in the last book, she’s still healing emotionally and potentially regretting the end of her relationship with painter, Liam. She misses him, and wonders if perhaps they could rekindle something. Then the other daughter of her ex-husband disappears. Jenny wonders if her life will ever be free of this man, as she joins forces with the other woman in Craig’s life to find her daughter. Finally, Hannah is facing massive changes in her academic and personal life. In a sense she’s being pulled between past and future. Her graduation becomes a double celebration when Indy proposes, but then she’s pulled into the past when their flat is broken into and someone makes it clear they still want to be part of her life. Her academic supervisor José asks her if she’ll look into one of the central questions of astrophysics, if there is extraterrestrial life, why haven’t they replied to our messages? He has had a reply, but doesn’t know where it’s come from. Is it really from another life form or is someone playing game with him?
There’s so much packed into this novel, but Doug Johnstone never loses a thread. Each storyline is given equal time and care. As I was reading the novel and writing this review, my partner saw my search history on my iPad and looked confused. I had tabs open for SETI (an institute set up to search for possible extraterrestrial life), the embalming process, numbers of big cats kept in domestic homes in the U.K, and Hindu funeral rites. Yes, the author does go to all these different places in the novel, not to mention the Italian gigolo and elderly lady, and they all interweave harmoniously. I love the unexpected situations they find themselves in, such as Indy and Hannah taking a walk in the park and encountering a black panther. I also love how these women throw off expectations and be themselves. Dorothy is an elderly lady, but she goes to clubs when one of her students is playing a gig, and has a healthy sex life with her long time friend and police contact, Thomas. She’s investigating the ‘foot’ incident, which becomes more urgent once another foot turns up, this timbelonging to someone different. She’s also investigating the panther incident and visits experts keeping wildcats at their homes. In between she’s supporting Abi, now living with the Skelfs, who gets a huge shock when a man claiming to be her birth father shows up.
Jenny has to face her ex- husband and there is a sense that this might be their final showdown. They had originally thought he’d be far away in another country, but with huge estates covering thousands of acres in Scotland, it’s not inconceivable that he’s been hiding close by all along. The strength of both Hannah and Jenny in facing him again, is amazing. They’re scared – so much so that Hannah and Indy move back in to the family home – but know that the only way to stop this man ruling their lives is to find him and have him locked away again. I felt for Jenny, who had just turned a corner emotionally and was considering her life moving forward, and whether she wanted to remain alone. She’s also investigating on behalf of a brother and sister who are concerned their elderly mother is being misled by an Italian playboy. As usual Jenny is professional with her investigation, but uneasy about her clients and their motives. Meanwhile, behind all these fireworks, the kind and loyal Indy is having a crisis about her grandparents. They are traditional, but to Hannah’s surprise they want to fly over from India for their wedding. They don’t mind their granddaughter marrying a woman it seems, but they do have a huge request relating to the death of Indy’s parents. Leading to some very hard choices for Indy, who I’m especially fond of.
Doug Johnstone is so many things at once: a gritty crime writer; a poet; a philosopher; a lover of the city where he bases this series; and an incredible writer of women. Johnstone writes real women, women who are intelligent, ballsy and true to themselves which is why I love them so much. One philosophical idea that stood out to me was ‘sonder’. It’s a word I’ve become aware of because it’s the title of my work in progress – where there are people in a difficult situation desperately trying to understand each other. Sonder is the sense I often get in a very busy train station when I look around at all the people and realise that every one of them has a complex and unique life just like mine. It’s the name of a cafe that Hannah visits near the university campus and as she sits there after her graduation, with Indy, Jenny and Dorothy she realises something. These three women come into people’s lives at a terrible moment, but have the ability to treat each person’s grief as if it was the most important thing to them. It reminded me of bringing a client into my counselling room, creating a safe space where, for an hour, the most important thing in the room is this person and whatever they bring to talk about. I think this is possibly why I feel such a strong kinship with these women. Jenny will take a drink with a homeless person and pass the time of day and Dorothy will connect with a young person fifty years her junior and make them feel welcome. I hope a little of the Skelfs rubs off on all of us. If you’ve never read the series, then do yourself a favour and buy all three. You won’t regret it. There was something about this book that felt like a finale, but I’m hoping against hope there’s more to come from these characters who I love. I’ll miss them, till next time.
Published by Orenda Books, 19th June 2021
Meet The Author.
Doug Johnstone is the author of eleven novels, most recently The Big Chill, the second in the Skelfs 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. –This text refers to the paperback edition.