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 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 immersed in an unbearable darkness – but could the real threat be to themselves?
Delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for The Big Chill by Doug Johnstone today. Thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for including me on the tour and to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for my digital copy of the novel, which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.
This is the second book featuring the Skelf women, following on from A Dark Matter, and I would recommend that you read that book before embarking on this one, because The Big Chill contains some spoilers for the first book. However, if that isn’t something that bothers you unduly, or you aren’t planning on reading the first book, The Big Chill works perfectly well as a standalone novel.
The book is told from the perspectives of, and in the voices of, three generations of Skelf women. Dorothy is the matriarch, running a funeral service and PI agency side by side, whilst trying to hold her family together in the aftermath of her husband’s death and the events of book one. Her daughter, Jenny, is embarking on a new relationship, whilst still coming to terms with her ex-husband being in prison. And Dorothy’s granddaughter, Hannah, is struggling with depression and anxiety following her father’s crimes. Each woman is battling her own demons, in her own way, but together they form a strong and fascinating unit.
As well as the lives of the three women, the author also presents us with a number of different mysteries to tussle with. Who was the homeless man killed in the car that crashes into one of Dorothy’s funerals? What has happened to Dorothy’s teenage drum student, missing from her parents’ house for several days? And what secret is Hannah’s professor hiding from his wife? Curious by nature and by profession, the Skelf women set about trying to get to the bottom of these puzzles, whilst exploring their own internal problems at the same time, so there is a lot for the reader to absorb.
The author paints the characters so vividly, that they are truly alive on the page. These are living, breathing, complex women who take no imagining to make believable, Doug has done all that work for you. I think Dorothy is my favourite, the Californian wild child, displaced to cold and rainy Edinburgh, still coming to terms with the fact that she is no longer young and drumming as a way to mindfulness. Cool doesn’t begin to cover it. She is one of those older women that we all aspire to be, and made me want to pick up a pair of drumsticks immediately. I absolutely loved her choice of music to drum to, too! She is definitely someone who is there for everyone else, putting the needs of all those she cares about before her own, but we get a glimpse under the surface to the turmoils she, herself, is experiencing, and hope that she may have found someone that she can share those with in the aftermath of widowhood. When I was younger, my mum always used to tell me that, no matter how old you get, you never feel any different inside. As I am not firmly ensconced in middle age myself, I understand what she meant, and Dorothy is a character who embodies this phenomenon to the full. I love her.
Hannah, at the other end of the scale, ponders her place in the universe and finds it small and insignificant, although its hard to tell whether this is a comfort or a cause for despair. She is seeing a therapist but, as a talented physics student, one gets the impression that she may be beyond the understanding of her counsellor. In their own way, all three women are pondering their place in the cosmos, trying to work out where they fit in after their lives have been shaken up and put down in a different place, a bit like an agitated snow globe, all their emotions and possibilities up in the air. The only thing holding them together in the maelstrom is the strength of their family bond and the certainty that, whatever else is happening, they can absolutely rely on each other.
This book is a gripping thriller, but it is also so much more. An exploration of family, of female strength, of ageing and death, relationships, community and where we fit in the world. There is so much depth and ideas to mine, but it is also pacy and darkly comic in places. In addition, Doug brings Edinburgh to life on the page. This is obviously a city he knows and loves, and that affection permeates every page of the book. I raced through the novel, loving every syllable, and I can’t wait for more. This writer has a natural talent and a keen eye and is someone that any fan of crime, thrillers or simply great writing should pick up.
The Big Chill is out now as an ebook and will be published in paperback on 20 August and you can get a copy here.
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About the Author
Doug Johnstone is the author of more ten novels, most recently Breakers (2019), which has been shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year and A Dark Matter (2020), which launched the Skelfs series. 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, which he drew on to write A Dark Matter – 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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