Doug Johnstone’s series about the amazing Skelf women, are some of my favourite books of all time. Dorothy, daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah run a funeral business and are also private investigators. A strong group of characters and an important part of why this series is so special! They form a powerful matriarchy and their love for each other, their passion to help others, makes them for me, some of the best female characters in modern crime fiction.
I love them so much I wanted to share my reviews of the four books in the series again and all in one post.
Three generations of women from the Skelfs family take over the family funeral-home and PI businesses in the first book of a taut, page-turning and darkly funny new series.
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…
A compelling, tense and shocking thriller and a darkly funny and warm portrait of a family in turmoil, A Dark Matter introduces a cast of unforgettable characters, marking the start of an addictive new series.
After finishing this book, my first thoughts were this book is bloody fantastic and the second, delight that it is the start of a new series.
So why is it so special?
There is a strong and I mean strong, ensemble cast of female characters who shine from the pages. They are expertly crafted and an absolute joy to spend time with. Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah are a rarity in fiction; they are the central characters in a story that reflects both their differing ages, but also the strength and diversity of their lives. From the pitch perfect description of Dorthy’s grief, her revaluation of her marriage and life, Jenny’s self destructive life and young Hannah’s search for answers about her friends disappearance and relationship with both her mum and nan, we have a portrait of a family consumed by grief, yet at the same time, the strength and love that binds them together. The Skelfs are utterly believable and captured my heart and soul as the story progressed through layers of dark comedy and danger. This is a tale about the things that bind us as families, how the ebb and flow of love pushes us apart, but always pulls us together. They are remarkable women, you fee; their pain, their love for each other, their reliance on this network that binds them and you wish, or I did and still do, that I could just spend some time with them. So real, you could almost reach into the pages and take a seat beside them.
Of course, this is also a thriller and a perfect one at that; there is both danger and twists that hit you like you have been sucker punched and struggle to catch your brief as the shock subsides. You need not worry if you’re after a thriller that will knock you off your feet, because this one will. But for me, it is lifted up into the, I wish I could award it a sack full of stars catergory, by those moments in the novel that deal with their grief at the death of patriarch Jim. Within the first few pages you become a witness not only to their loss, but a stunning depiction of his funeral and cremation that rocked my reading world, so intense, so real did it feel, that I had to take a step back before I carried on reading. It is simply like no other book I have ever read. Just for those few pages and Dorothy’s search for answers, I would happily pay any price the publisher asked of me. It is simply mesmerising and rewarding on every level.
Add to that a mystery disappearance to be solved, a husband accused of cheating, three incredible women and you have a story, that will rock you reading world, make you laugh, cry and gasp in shock.
Running private investigator and funeral home businesses means trouble is never far away, and the Skelf women take on their most perplexing, chilling cases yet in book two of this darkly funny, devastatingly tense and addictive new series!
Haunted by their past, the Skelf women are hoping for a quieter life. But running both a funeral directors’ and a private investigation business means trouble is never far away, and when a car crashes into the open grave at a funeral that matriarch Dorothy is conducting, she can’t help looking into the dead driver’s shadowy life.
While Dorothy uncovers a dark truth at the heart of Edinburgh society, her daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah have their own struggles. Jenny’s ex-husband Craig is making plans that could shatter the Skelf women’s lives, and the increasingly obsessive Hannah has formed a friendship with an elderly professor that is fast turning deadly.
But something even more sinister emerges when a drumming student of Dorothy’s disappears and suspicion falls on her parents. The Skelf women find themselves sucked into an unbearable darkness – but could the real threat be to themselves?
Following three women as they deal with the dead, help the living and find out who they are in the process, The Big Chill follows A Dark Matter, book one in the Skelfs series, which reboots the classic PI novel while asking the big existential questions, all with a big dose of pitch-black humour.
I have been looking forward to this novel from the day I finished the last pages of the first in the series, A Dark Matter. The Big Chill is a superb sequel! Equal parts exciting, terrifying, deeply moving and heart warming. It has a caste of strong supportive women. and storylines so beautifully written, that the complex web of interconnecting cases flow together with ease, It is like sitting down snuggled up in your favourite reading chair, curled up in your cwtch (think of it like a snug) and reading a book that just feels utterly perfect.
I adored once again spending time with Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah, the Skelfs, who are the most wonderful intergenerational undertakers and private investigators you could hope to meet. They are absolutely my very favourite set of characters, flawed yes, it’s what makes them interesting, but they also all have a heart of gold, they care about those they bury and the living for whom they help track down missing husbands etc. What comes across even more in The Big Chill is how much they care for each other, grandmother, mother, daughter will always be the very best matriarchy, a cherished dream, that seek to help others, while protecting each other. Here they are having to face up to the consequences and events that took place in A Dark Matter, but they do this together, reaching out to each other when the mental and physical anguish threatens to overwhelm them and it simply made me love them all the more. Dorothy is the seventy year old head of the family, but put aside your misconceptions, she is no doddery old lady who sits in the background, while her family solve the crimes and bury the deceased. She is in fact, looking forward to the future, considering a new and potentially meaningful relationship and putting her heart and soul into helping those in need. Her daughter Jenny is a battered and bruised former reporter, now finding herself as The Big Chill progresses more and more comfortable in the role of Private Investigator. Then Hannah, deeply sensitive, fragile and yet passionate and brave, makes up this trio of perfectly balanced characters. Then Doug Johnstone surrounds them with supporting characters that form an ensemble of such richness and diversity, you really feel as if your walking through the streets of Edinburgh, not in the pages of a book, but there with them, within their lives, sharing their triumphs and also their pain.
The Big Chill is made up of several narrative arcs which are woven into the fabric of the story. There is the tragic death of a young man, Hannah and her friendship with a professor that has deadly consequences, the mystery around one of Dorothy’s young students and the continuing and terrifying influence of Jenny’s ex-husband over all their lives. Now that might sound too many, but I promise you it isn’t! All the individual stories tie together and flow effortlessly in and out of each other. The writing catches you up within it’s embrace and very much like with the characterisation, makes you feel as if you are in Edenborough. The sense of place within is pitch perfect, I felt as if I was sat with Jenny as she talked with the cities homeless. I ached for Hannah as she fought her own pain, fears and obsessions and I hoped with a tangible pang in my chest that Dorothy would take the first tentative steps in a life without her beloved husband. Doug Johnstone made me feel all of this and more, in a novel that is far from being chilly as any book can be, he gives us pain, even violence, but at it’s magnificent heart are the Skelfs and I can’t wait to read more. More and more.
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 excitement, 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.
Well there you have it. I hope you love them all as much as I do!
You can purchase Doug Johnstone’s books from Amazon and Waterstones.