A Year of Orenda – The Big Chill by Doug Johnstone

Today it is my absolute pleasure to be taking part n the blog tour for The Big Chill by Doug Johnstone. Book two in the Skelfs series, it features three generations of Skelf women who, between them, run both a Detective Agency and a Funeral Directors. My thanks go to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours and to publishers Orenda books, for letting me join the tour. If you’d like to read my review of book one, you can find it here. If you just want to know about this second outing, here’s what the book is all about.

Source: Advance Reader Copy

About the Book

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.

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

My Thoughts

A Private Investigation firm that is also a Funeral Directors? What’s not to love about this series? Book two in The Skelfs series by Doug Johnstone sees us return to the fabulous Skelf women a short time after the events of books one. It would be nice to say that the dust has settled on that part of their lives and that they are all carving a new path for themselves, but life is seldom that simple and certainly for Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah moving on and letting go of the past is far from easy.

This time around there are three cases on the go, none of them exactly official. For Jenny it is the search for the family of a young man who dies after dropping in unexpectedly on a funeral that Dorothy is responsible for. And by dropping in I do really mean literally. Let’s just say that his parking skills leave a lot to be desired. Dorothy meanwhile is trying to track down one of her teenage drumming students who fails to show up for her lesson and whose own mother seems reluctant to engage in the search for reasons that are slowly revealed. And Hannah, struggling with her own demons, is now faced with trying to find out what would lead to the death of a University Professor.

In a story full of secrets and deception, Doug Johnstone finds a pace of story telling that is compelling and yet matches the feeling of melancholy that is infecting this family. None of the women are operating at full throttle this time around. Even Hannah’s former enthusiasm for investigation is tempered, her love of science affected by the constant feeling that the uncertainty of life is at complete odds with her once clearly defined understanding of the universe. There is a sense of fear and regret that seems to subdue the characters a little and, given what happened in book one, that is full understandable. The author has captured the mood perfectly and rather than turning me off, it actually drew me in, waiting for the three of them to find the resolve that I know they possessed to allow them to solve their respective cases.

This is a book full of reflection, not only of the women’s lives, but also of the key theme that runs throughout the narrative – that of family and acceptance. The way in which those who are meant to love you unconditionally can either make or break your future. A look at how far some families are willing to go to ensure the happiness of one another, and the devastating impact on lives where understanding and acceptance is not forthcoming for others. From missing fathers and secret relationships, to a reflection of the growing population of homeless people on the streets of Edinburgh, all themes are handled in a thoughtful and perceptive way that will challenge you and make you think long and hard about your own prejudices and actions.

What I have loved about this series is that Doug Johnstone has created such a strong and diverse cast of women to lead us through the stories, with the male characters really only playing a supportive, or in some cases antagonistic, role. Dorothy is a brilliant matriarchal figure, although somewhat tired and jaded in this book, struggling to find the pleasure in the everyday, reminiscing over times when life was simple, but happy. Jenny is full of insecurities and badly damaged by her past, certain that she is destined to know only sorrow. She’s stronger than she understands, but she is written perfectly, resulting in a mix of empathy and frustration when I read passages from her point of view. It is Hannah’s passages that are the hardest to read, seeing the once vibrant young woman reduced to a ball of anger, hurt and almost resignation. Understandable, and yet sad to watch, especially as it starts to have an impact on her once solid relationship with Indy. Archie and Thomas are back. Archie, quiet in nature, is struggling with his own grief, providing some of the books quiet and more emotional moments. And the chemistry between Thomas and Dorothy is ever present, as are the frequent trips to Soderberg, increasing my need for pastry dishes tenfold.

In the end, everything we read can be linked back to the concept of family, even the story arc involving the Skelfs themselves which carries over from book one in rather dramatic and tense fashion. For that reason, I would recommend that if you haven’t already done so I would read A Dark Matter first. You will get the essence of the way in which the women’s lives have changed as a result of what happens, but there are elements of this book that are better served by knowing the full story. There is an underlying threat that carries throughout, right to the rather intense showdown at the end of the book. This is a conflict that is far from resolved, the promise of more to come tantalising for me as a reader. How it will impact our three heroic women, Jenny and Hannah especially, remains to be seen.

If you like to read a series that is a blend of the unusual, a combination of science, emotion and mystery, then this is the series for you. This book is a heady mix of emotion, reflection and tension, full of brilliant characters and compelling storylines that really get to the heart of society and family life. With added science – brought to you in a far more interesting way than your average GSCE Physics teacher of course.

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.

Author Links: Twitter | Website

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