A Dark Matter: 1 (The Skelfs)

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By Doug Johnstone; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman

Having a funeral home and a private investigation agency in the same building isn’t as unnatural as it might first seem.

As secretive as death itself is, it exposes much that the deceased might have hidden.

Take Jim Skelf, owner and operator of the Skelf family funeral home and private investigations in Edinburgh, Scotland. When his wife Dorothy finds his dead body on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night, it’s just the first surprise Jim’s death leaves her.

The second is that for years, he has been paying money to Rebecca Lawrence, the wife (now widow) of a former Skelf employee Simon Lawrence. Simon mysteriously disappeared before Jim’s payments to Rebecca started.

When Dorothy goes to see Rebecca, she learns that Jim came to Rebecca and told her to sign some papers so that she could get payments from Simon’s insurance policy from Skelfs. The problem is that Skelfs doesn’t — and never has — offered employees life insurance.

With Jim’s death, his daughter Jenny, 45, and granddaughter Hannah help out in the family businesses. Jenny, a newspaper columnist, has just lost her job and moves back home with Dorothy with a mixture of relief from her financial worries and reluctance about losing her independence. Hannah is studying physics at the local university and in a loving relationship with another woman, Indy, who started working at Skelf’s as a receptionist and now wants to become a funeral director.

When Hannah’s roommate Melanie Cheng goes missing Hannah applies the resources of the family investigation agency to trying to find her.

This is a fascinating and unusual series of mysteries solved by the Skelf women, at the same time that readers get a respectful back-of-the-house view of a funeral home.

Author Doug Johnstone has assembled a delightful cast of characters from the Pismo Beach-raised Dorothy to the weary and love-lost Jenny to the fiery Hannah. The sole non-family employee of the funeral home is Archie, a man who suffers from Cotard’s Syndrome, in which a person believes he or she is dead despite all evidence otherwise.

It’s a pleasure to read the differing perspectives the Skelf women have about life given their different ages. Johnstone is that rare male author who can write credibly and three-dimensionally from a woman’s perspective.

The Skelf’s clients range from 91-year-old Jacob, who believes his caregiver is stealing from him to Orla Hook who keeps insisting that her husband Liam is having an affair even when Jenny observes otherwise to Jenny’s deceptive ex-husband Craig, who cheated on her during their marriage and now seems to be making advances inappropriate to a man with a second wife and new child.

A DARK MATTER (2020) is the first book in the Skelf series. It was followed by THE BIG CHILL (2020) and THE GREAT SILENCE (2021).

The Author: Doug Johnstone (1970 – )

As of 2022, Doug Johnstone has written 13 novels. THE BIG CHILL was long-listed for the Theakston Crime Novel of the Year and three of his books — A DARK MATTER, BREAKERS and THE JUMP — where shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year.

He has taught creative writing and been a writer-in-residence at festivals, libraries, universities, schools, prisons and a funeral directors association over the past two decades.

Doug is a Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow and works as a mentor and manuscript assessor for many organizations, including the Literary Consultancy, Scottish Book Trust and New Writing North.

For more than 20 years he has been an arts journalist. He is a songwriter and musician with six albums and three EPs released. Doug plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He is also co-founder of the Scotland Writers Football Club.

Doug has a degree in physics, a doctorate in nuclear physics and a diploma in journalism. Before beginning his career as a writer, he designed radar and missile guidance systems for military aircraft.

He lives in Portobello, Edinburgh, with his wife and two children.


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