A Year of Orenda – A Dark Matter by Doug Johnstone

Today I’m delighted to wish Doug Johnstone a very happy paperback publication day. I’m taking part in the blog tour for A Dark Matter the first book in the Skelfs series featuring a Private Detective Agency/Funeral business – what else? My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to join the tour and to publisher Orenda Books for providing the advance review copy of the book. Here’s what it’s all about:

Source: Advance Reader Copy

About the Book

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.

Available from Amazon | Kobo | Waterstones | Googleplay | Apple Books

My Thoughts

A Dark Matter is the first book in the Skelfs series and what a start it is. This book is a fabulous blend of family, science, and mystery . A story which is surrounded by death, but for none of the typical reasons – although there is a murder to solve. But when the people looking into the crime manage both a Private Investigation firm AND a funeral home, you know that things are going to get interesting. Quite the unconventional mix wouldn’t you say?

Now this has to be possibly one of the most unusual openings to a novel I have read in many a year. We are introduced to the Skelf women, three generations of them in fact, as they attend the funeral of Patriarch of the family, Jim. Nothing unusual in that you might think. And you’d be right … apart from the circumstances of the, er, style of the funeral. I’ll let you read to see what I mean but part of me read it thinking ‘now that is the way to go.’. Also yuk.

The core of the story follows two threads. One is a secret that matriarch, Dorothy, discovers about Jim in the weeks after his death. This is something she is determined to get to the bottom of, seeking the help of her friend and former police officer, Thomas. This is an interesting side story and one which kept me hooked, wondering about what might be going on, suspecting as Dorothy did, that it was one answer and being completely floored by the opposite.

Then there is the secondary story, one that surrounds the disappearance of one of Hannah’s roommates this is the story that really dominates, drives the tension and mystery and brings us right into the heart of the Skelf family and the sideline that they have as part time private investigators. There are a wealth of suspects, a myriad of secrets and a whole lot of science. I think I learned more from this book than I ever did attending school …

I loved the characters of the Skelf women – Dorothy, Hannah and Jenny. They are all strong in their own way, although Jenny is perhaps the weakest of the three, reeling from a failed marriage and the loss of her job , her home and her father, the last three in quick succession. She takes over the PI business, slowly finding herself and her stride and as much as I’d often like to shake her and wake her up, I did admire her in a way too. Hannah is young, confident, tenacious and a complete science geek, the author using all his own knowledge and experience to create a character who makes nerdism look good. And then there is Dorothy, the strongest of the lot. I really liked her and her willingness to confront the truth no matter the cost to her.

Doug Johnstone has done a brilliant job of creating believable and relatable female characters in a story in which women power dominates. Men do feature, but that is the key thing – they only feature, they don’t take over. All of the major players are women – from the three main characters to their friends and loved ones. With one notable exception in Thomas, men are almost held at bay, treated with suspicion and seldom painted in a positive light. There is a strong message there from the author, both a celebration of the strength of women and a castigation of the way certain men behave, and the whole misogynistic culture which is being challenged so openly these days. Subtle but effective and very believable.

I really enjoyed this story, becoming completely immersed in it from the off. Yes there is a lot of technical information imparted from a science point of view, but this fascinated me. I also loved the way in which the action was blended with the everyday of the funeral parlour and intrigued as to how mixing this with a PI business would work but, perhaps bizarrely, it did. The author has done his research, not overwhelming the reader with the facts, but giving just enough to bring authenticity to the piece.

This is not a fast past novel. It is not a ramped up police investigation all high tech tools and DNA sampling. It is a young woman trying to find her friend, a mother trying to hunt down potentially unfaithful spouses and a Grandmother seeking the truth. But it is still gripping, still full of thrills. Still full of the powerful, emotive and visually driven narrative that Doug Johnstone is known for. He sets the scene perfectly, be it the funeral home, the University or just the city itself, and you do not need to know the area to feel as though you are there.

Towards the end, when the full truth begins to emerge, the tension starts to build and there are some really edge of the seats moments, followed by a more serene and reflective final chapter that just left me wanting more. And I mean – imagine the business opportunities here. Have you been murdered? No problem. We’ll work out who did it and even give you a really good price on your coffin in a January sale murder package special … Come on – tell me that does not have legs.

If I have one complaint about this book – and it is only a minor niggle and perhaps a cautionary tale too – it is that Dorothy and Thomas kept meeting at Söderberg. Now anyone who knows their bakeries in Edinburgh must know Söderberg. I do and I only visit occasionally. I also know there is one in London for those in the south who need a pastry fix. All I kept thinking while reading was that I really wanted a Cardamom bun. So much so that Mandie and I ended up visiting the bakery at Quartermile twice on our recent visit, indulging in yummy porridge a several different types of pastry between us. Now this may not be a problem if you are not in Edinburgh or London but we were (both in fact) after reading this book and when you are meant to be dieting, as nice as cardamom buns are, they are not on plan. So yes – this book is bad for your waistline, as much as because once you start reading you won’t want to move as because you’ll be craving carbs. You have been warned!!!

A Söderberg breakfast* – as highly recommended as the book!
* That is a Cinnamon bun – Cinnamon is good for your health(?)

About the Author

Doug Johnstone is the author of ten novels, most recently Breakers (2018), which has been shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. 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 – including a funeral home – 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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