Science, murder and funeral parlours.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 5 January 2020
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 Jenny'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 Hannah 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. Jenny 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.
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.
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