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.
After all the trials of remote learning and the lockdown, I felt like spending a week in stunning Northumberland with a bag full of awesome books was my reward -and The Big Chill was quite frankly the icing on the cake. I’ve been waiting for book Two of The Skelfs series ever since I finished A Dark Matter and spending the day on a lounger getting stuck into The Big Chill was one of the highlights of my week away for sure and as ever I’m grateful to Anne Cater for inviting me on the tour and to Karen Sullivan from Orenda for always picking the best books to blog about
It might sound overtly dark to blend a Private Investigation firm with a Funeral Directors – bit that’s where Doug Johnstone’s genius kicks in. Life with Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah is never dull and whilst this could absolutely be read as a stand-alone, the fact that I was already so invested in these three women and their lives added another dimension of enjoyment for me as I immersed myself in the second instalment of their adventures.
As ever, life for the Skelfs is never dull and it’s one of the things that I love about Doug Johnstone’s writing that we manage to be just as caught up and interested in all of the stories, rather than waiting to return to the ‘main one’ when we are away from it – as can be the case for so many crime writers. I was totally engaged with Jenny’s search for the family of a man who dies at one of Dorothy’s funerals. His death is one of the many aspects of this novel that are just superbly written and I am vowing to keep this spoiler free so I’ll just say that I made my husband drive the next day after reading about his untimely demise. Life for Dorothy and Hannah is far from dull either as they are both caught up in mysterious cases of their own when their private and public lives collide and they are closer to the persons involved than either of then would like to be…
Doug Johnstone remains one of my very favourite writers as he knows just when to switch from one thread of the story to another that leaves us hungrily turning the pages and forgetting about the time. He never sacrifices character in the name of plot and that’s why time just flies when you’re reading his books. You want to know the answers, yes for sure – but you also want to knowhow this impacts on the Skelfs themselves because he makes you care. Their lives are complex and three dimensional, their problems are the ones caused by their jobs, of course – but also the problems that we’ve all struggled with in terms of our life choices and our relationships that make them feel like people we know and people who matter to us. I found myself wondering about them as I went through the day whenever I was away from them and for me that is one of the hallmarks of an excellent rather than just enjoyable read.
Johnstone asks us to think about a range of issues in the novel but as ever he writes best about human connections – the way that the people we love affect our lives is superbly handled as he highlights the way that we often are totally unaware of the way that our actions can impact on those closest to us. It’s not just the Skelfs that he brings to life in this way – all of the families in the novel are beautifully written and often it’s the little thing that resonate the most. I particularly love Archie and the things he comes away with and love the way that his Cotard’s Syndrome is woven into the narrative so seamlessly that it never sticks out as gimmicky or tokenistic.
They all have their own struggles and it’s satisfying to see their personalities mature and diversify in this second novel. They are far greater than the sum of their parts and there are aspects of them all that I connected with -although in this book that it’s Hannah’s travails that I’m most drawn to as she is clearly struggling and the added pressures of work are not helping her to feel as she one did that there are calm and rational rules for the universe that can bring it to heel once we learn them all. Hannah’s struggles to match her University studies with an often senseless and chaotic world outside her textbooks makes for a compelling and compassionately written narrative that I thought about often as I walked the coastal paths last week and she became so real that I felt like I could have met up with her for a coffee and tried to put the world to rights together.
This book will be sure to please Doug Johnstone’s legions of fans with its intriguing and satisfying blend of a family saga, some compelling cases and a satisfyingly tense narrative. It kept me absolutely hooked and I cannot wait for the next instalment. This year will be all the poorer due to not being able to book tickets to see Doug at a Book Festival soon – but I am ever-hopeful that once this is all over I can check in and hear him talking to us about the Skelfs to my hearts content. Buy yourself a copy of The Big Chill here and set aside some time to really enjoy it. It’s a perfect summer read with characters you’ll really care about and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Writer On The Shelf
Doug Johnstone is a writer, musician and journalist based in Edinburgh. His tenth novel, Breakers, was published by Orenda Books in May 2019, and was shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. His previous books include The Jump, shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize, Gone Again, an Amazon bestseller, and Hit & Run, which was an Amazon #1 as well as being selected as a prestigious Fiction Uncovered winner. His work has received praise from the likes of Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, William McIlvanney, Megan Abbott and Christopher Brookmyre.
Doug has been Writer in Residence with William Purves Funeral Directors. He is also a Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow, and was RLF Fellow at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh 2014-2016. Doug was also Writer in Residence at the University of Strathclyde 2010-2012 and before that worked as a lecturer in creative writing there. He’s had short stories appear in various publications and anthologies, and since 1999 he has worked as a freelance arts journalist, primarily covering music and literature. He is also a manuscript assessor for The Literary Consultancy and Emergents in the Scottish Highlands. He has taught creative writing at festivals and conferences and regularly at Moniack Mhor, and he has mentored aspiring writers for New Writing North and Scottish Book Trust.
Doug is one of the co-founders of the Scotland Writers Football Club, for whom he also puts in a shift in midfield as player-manager. He is also a singer, musician and songwriter in several bands, including Northern Alliance, who have released four albums to critical acclaim, as well as recording an album as a fictional band called The Ossians. Doug has also released three solo EPs. He plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a crime writing supergroup featuring Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, Chris Brookmyre, Stuart Neville and Luca Veste.
Doug has a degree in physics, a PhD in nuclear physics and a diploma in journalism, and worked for four years designing radars. He grew up in Arbroath and lives in Portobello, Edinburgh with his wife and two children.