Black Hearts by Doug Johnstone

Death is just the beginning…

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 interwines 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…


Black Hearts the fourth in the Skelf’s series is abundant proof of why author Doug Johnstone’s books not only appear on so many prize lists, but also why the series has been optioned for development into a TV series.

It is a thoughtful, touching book, full of moments of sorrow and excitement, all mixed up into one of the best drama’s available to read. Within it are three of the best characters in Scottish fiction, the very wonderful Skelf women. Working within the teaming community of Edinburgh, not only do they run a funeral business, but they also run a detective agency.

This original set-up creates a narrative that centers around the lives of these three women and the cast of characters that revolve in and out of their lives. The fact is that a book in which all the primary characters are female is still rare enough to make it incredibly special. For me to have followed a series around three generations of the same matriarchal family has been why I am such a massive fan. Take into account the superb stories that they inhabit, and you simply won’t find a better book to read.

The novel is made up of several intricate tales, there is murder, a mystery of a missing father, an old man crushed by the loss of his wife, who thinks he is being haunted and they come together perfectly to form a story that is impossible to put down. A heady mixture of love, loss, drama and family.

Many books feature these same elements, but what makes Black Hearts so brilliant, is its sense of family. Doug Johnstone gently layers it into all the stories, the connections good and bad formed within families and then showing us within an electrifying narrative, the utter destruction that can take place when the clan falls apart. By death, by abandonment, he takes the family dynamic apart and creates a story which is both heartbreaking, heartwarming and exciting, a heady mixture which forms the perfect story. Few writers can within a drama, break your heart, heal it and excite it like this author. He tests both them and us and this is why I love these women so much.

Even the pace of the narrative is perfect. Each story is given equal treatment and at no point does the story falter. From the quiet moments we are ambushed by sudden moments of excitment, fear even for the safety of the Skelf women. It delivers a quiet punch to the heart and left me feeling sad once again that my time with these remarkable women was over once again.

You can purchase this novel directly from the publisher at Orenda Books.

You can also buy it from Amazon and Waterstones.

About the author

Doug Johnstone is the author of Twelve novels, most recently The Great Silence, the third in the Skelfs series, which has been optioned for TV. In 2021, The Big Chill, the second in the series, was longlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. 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. Black Hearts (Book four), will be published in 2022. 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.

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