I was thinking of peppering this review with lots of funeral puns, but I realised it would be a grave mistake. For a start, A Dark Matter, Doug Johnstone’s opening novel in the Skelfs series, avoids clichés. The whole premise is pretty fresh and startling, from the opening line
Her dad took much longer to burn than she expected
to the concept of a business that is half undertaker, half investigation unit. That is one flexible format, capable of almost any kind of plot. Most of society will at some point traipse into a funeral director’s, vertically or horizontally. All life could be here, you think: death the great leveller etc etc, grief a universal process, the hunger for truth one of humanity’s driving forces. But this business is the creation of Jim Skelf, and he can play no direct part in events, other than to burn too slowly and possibly too evocatively in the first chapter.
Jim is dead, and his wife, Dorothy, daughter, Jenny, and granddaughter, Hannah, must learn how to be funeral directors and how to be private investigators while mourning the family patriarch. They aren’t that good at any of it, at first, and then they are. I assume. Johnstone gets us up close to the undertaker’s arts: we’re in the embalming suite, the chapel of rest and the workshop where the carpentry takes place. It’s not a world I know well, other than from a very bizarre episode of Midsomer Murders. It’s not a world that our characters seem to know that well either, in the beginning.
But I loved this. First, for the three main protagonists, who are excellent, well-rounded, flawed, emotional and credible characters who bicker and disagree, love each other to bits and find surprising strength in themselves and in each other. They work together well, with contrasting and complementary personalities and outlooks. They allow Johnstone to make astute observations about different generations and what separates them and what binds them. He obviously cares about the three women and makes us care for them too, even when we are yelling at them to do this or not do that. Like the setting of Edinburgh itself, which I know a bit but not overly so, they are both relatable and distant.
Second, for the pitch. Death, grief and loss are difficult subjects. Writers can be over-sentimental or lean too heavily on macabre humour (which I think I was expecting). Johnstone gives his characters room to breathe, to grieve, to forget, and to laugh – and he gives them things to do that draw them out of their shells and then dump them right back in. Only the sidekicks Indy and Thomas are a little cardboard, and they are needed like that in order to contrast with our three leads. The jokes and light asides – of which there are plenty – never seem overly dark because they are set in the context of grief and the sort of life reassessment that is forced on at least two of the main characters. That is not to say that there isn’t darkness. Dorothy comes across a secret that turns everything sour. The steps she will need to take to find the right resolution – and the truth she will establish along the way – are not easy to hear about or possible to unread. It’s a strength of the novel that it forces its characters to confront reality and then to mix new shades of grey from initially uncompromising black and white. There’s a moral core to the novel among the fraudsters, adulterers, thieves and student drummers, and it places the needs of the living at its heart.
Third, because Johnstone flexes his muscles when developing some of the outlandish sub-plots that arise from the investigation side of the business. They consider serious issues and they take them seriously but they are a little cartoonish at times and the better for it.
A Dark Matter features stabbings, two killings, lots of betrayal and grief. But its heart beats, oh, so strongly. The queasy may not find it that enjoyable. I think it’s great.
Thanks to Orenda Books and Anne Cater for the review copy.