A Dark Matter by Doug Johnstone #BookReview #BlogTour

After an unexpected death, three generations of women take over the family funeral-home and PI businesses in the first book of a brilliant, page-turning and darkly funny new series 
The Skelfs are a 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 women, 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... It’s a compelling and tense thriller and a darkly funny, warm portrait of a family in turmoil.

I'm honoured to be hosting the blog tour for A Dark Matter today. Huge thanks to Doug Johnstone, Orenda Books and Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me and for my advance copy of the novel.

This is the third of Doug Johnstone's books I've read after Fault Lines and the McIlvanney Prize nominated Breakers and what I've come to realise is that even though each story he writes is very different, what he does every time is get to the heart of why people behave as they do. A Dark Matter is no exception and so I'm thrilled that this is the first in a planned trilogy (I'm keeping my fingers crossed for even more!)
The eye-catching, irreverent first line brings to mind the opening of Iain Banks' The Crow Road (which is actually referenced later in the novel). Jim Skelf may have run a funeral home for decades but his own funeral is rather more makeshift  - and illegal  - as his wife, Dorothy, daughter, Jenny and granddaughter, Hannah have a unique way of saying goodbye to him in their back garden. Death features in a lot of the books I read but usually as a plot point and while that's true here too, it's also recognised more pragmatically as being part of the rhythm of life. There's something quite comforting about the shared experience of funerals - though each person's grief is personal, we all rely on similar ceremonies to mark their passing. The Skelfs understand the importance of the ritual and though they are still burdened by their own sorrow, they continue running the family business -  although in one poignant scene it all becomes too overwhelming for Dorothy as she considers all the funerals Jim handled for fifty years - including the tragic deaths; the babies and children, teenage suicides, car-crash victims, murders, mistakes and accidents - and realises that now it's her turn.
Still in that numb period of readjustment following loss and perhaps seeking a distraction from their grief, the three women also decide to carry on running Jim's other business as a private investigator. They each have their reasons for taking on their separate cases; Dorothy needs to find out why Jim had been making payments to another woman, Jenny - whose own husband left after cheating on her - agrees to take on an adultery case, and Hannah tries to discover what has happened to her best friend, Mel. A Dark Matter is a woman-centric novel, there are male characters but it is the women - the Skelfs, of course but also Hannah's partner, Indy and even the absent Mel who make the biggest impression. The chapters are written from the alternate perspectives of Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah and Doug Johnstone's deeply insightful writing ensures these memorable, flawed women are vividly brought to life.
The pervasiveness of sexism and the predatory behaviour of some men is a running theme throughout the book and although Jenny muses that her daughter's generation are changing society by refusing to tolerate the catcalling and groping etc that she just accepted when she was young, in truth it's not as simple and Hannah is also confronted by the reality that there are some boys her own age with the attitudes of fifty years ago. It's a sad but realistic reflection of life and acknowledges too, that there are still double standards when women become the predators. There is a scene where the initial satisfaction of seeing a woman turn the tables on a man who has never had to fend off an unwanted sexual advance actually becomes quite an uncomfortable read.
It should come as no surprise that A Dark Matter is frequently a very dark book; there are some grim and distressing moments here as the three women make some shocking discoveries about their own lives as well as those who they are investigating. However, what makes it so engaging and authentic is that it is also often very funny. I know from my own experiences that even during the hardest times there is still black humour to be found and far from being inappropriate to laugh, it is often a vital coping mechanism which empowers people to discuss sensitive or serious subjects. 
As physics student, Hannah muses about entanglement, so we are reminded that we are all intrinsically linked and Doug Johnstone encapsulates that perfectly in this beautifully perceptive book. The complex plot skilfully interweaves the separate mysteries with a compelling family drama that has real emotional pull - there is sadness, disappointment and anger here but also love, hope and laughter. A Dark Matter is everything I hoped for - dark and shocking yet imbued with a very real sense of warmth and compassion, I loved it.

A Dark Matter is published by Orenda Books, it is available now as an ebook and the paperback will be out on 23rd January 2020. Purchasing links can be found here.

Don't miss the rest of the blog tour, details are below.

About the Author

Doug Johnstone is the author of ten novels, most recently Breakers (2018), which was longlisted 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, 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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