If only everything in life was as dependable as a Doug Johnstone novel. Over the years he has become a writer whose books you can open and relax into as you know you are in safe hands. Although, perhaps ‘relax’ isn’t the most appropriate word as Johnstone rarely lets you do that. A trademark of his novels is that he gets into the action quickly and keeps readers hooked until the final word, offering a literary joy ride each time.
His latest, A Dark Matter, is no exception. It’s a family affair, with three generations of the Skelf family coming to terms with the death of patriarch Jim, a husband, father, and grandfather respectively to Dorothy, Jenny, and Hannah. The novel opens at his funeral – an unconventional affair, with an old-fashioned, if makeshift, funeral pyre taking longer than expected to do its terrible job giving the family time to reflect on the past and ponder the future.
The Skelf’s two-pronged business interests means they are well used to both funerals and mysteries, so it is only right that A Dark Matter sets up both in the opening pages. They run a funeral home as well as working as private investigators and it is only a matter of time before the two crossover. With a missing person inquiry which is close to home, a mysterious disappearance from the past, and a potential adultery case, the Skelfs soon have their own investigations to help them deal with, or more likely displace, their grief.
Johnstone manages to weave together all the separate plot strands into a pleasing and carefully constructed conclusion, ramping the tension up to almost unbearable heights – as you near the end you realise you are completely absorbed in what unfolds, There are are not many writers who command your attention and leave you breathless as Doug Johnstone does.
All of the characters are well-drawn, recognisable, and relatable, but this particularly applies to the Skelfs who have the potential to be the protagonists in a long-running series (something hinted at on the novel’s cover). Previously Johnstone has written stand alone stories, but it would be a shame if we were never to meet-up with these three again, and especially with such a promising central premise. Imagine Six Feet Under meets Prime Suspect, or Alan Spence’s Way To Go crossed with Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories for a more literary comparison, and you have some idea as to the tone of A Dark Matter.
In the past I’ve, perhaps too easily, placed Johnstone’s novels into two categories – the high octane excitement of Smokeheads, Hit & Run, The Dead Beat, Crash Land, and Fault Lines on one hand, the more intricate domestic noir of The Jump, Gone Again, and last year’s Breakers, on the other. Each have much to recommend them, but A Dark Matter marries these two styles as never before making it the most ‘Doug Johnstone’ novel to date, and, I would suggest, his finest.
If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading a Doug Johnstone novel then this is the perfect place to start. You then have one of the most thrilling back-catalogues Scottish crime fiction has to offer awaiting you. A Dark Matter could just be the start of a beautiful relationship.