Book review: The Great Silence, by Doug Johnstone

The third in book in Doug Johnstone’s Skelfs series finds the Edinburgh detectives contending with confusing family ties, the possibility of extra-terrestrial life and rumours of a big cat stalking the Meadows, writes Kirsty McLuckie

Doug Johnstone PIC: Duncan McGlynn
Doug Johnstone PIC: Duncan McGlynn

This is the third installment in Doug Johnstone’s series about the Skelf family – three generations of Edinburgh women who run a funeral business alongside a private investigations bureau. They have different doors for the clients of the two companies, but both lead to the same reception and the activities of both sides of the business are entwined in the plot.

As this is the third book in the series, there is a fair amount of back story that new readers will have missed, but Johnstone deftly brings us up to speed and by the end of the first couple of chapters it’s easy to understand who the main characters are and the challenges they are facing.

Matriarch Dorothy is newly widowed, but embarking on a new relationship with a police officer, Thomas, at the same time as taking in a teenage lodger, Abi, who is estranged from her family. Dorothy’s daughter Jenny has escaped an abusive relationship which culminated in her kidnap, but her ex-husband has eluded justice and is still on the run. Grand-daughter Hannah, meanwhile, is about to embark on a PhD in astrophysics and is happily paired up with girlfriend Indy, and both of them work on investigations.

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    The Great Silence, by Doug Johnstone

    The action all takes place in the present day, but while there is a discussion about the Tiger King documentary, there is no mention of Covid. Life carries on as normal – if you can describe the dizzying rate at which cases, crises and questions are thrown up by the plot as normal.

    First Dorothy’s dog finds a human foot on The Meadows, but when she takes it back to the funeral parlour for investigation in a dog poo bag, it throws up more questions than it answers. The foot has been through a lot post-death, having undergone a botched embalming and been chewed.

    Meanwhile an astrophysics colleague of Hannah’s asks her to investigate messages that are appearing in data he is analysing to classify exoplanets. Could they be the first contacts from alien life, is he being gaslighted by colleagues, or might these messages be a symptom of his own deteriorating mental health?

    Then, while Hannah and Indy are taking a walk on the Meadows they encounter a further mystery, after being confronted by a jaguar nicknamed “The Beast of Bruntsfield" by the tabloids.

    Jenny, in her late 40s and regretting the life decisions that have led her to be single and living with her mother, takes on a case involving a rich widow and her beautiful young boyfriend, acting on behalf of her two adult children who are convinced he is scamming their frail mother. But the weirdness of the relationship between the son and the daughter makes her uncomfortable.

    Johnstone’s penchant for digging deep into the lives of his characters extends to their interests, and as a result the reader learns a great deal about various disparate subjects. By the end of The Great Silence, you will likely know more about mortuary practice, planet hunting at the Royal Observatory, the Fermi theory of alien life, Hindu burial practices and the principles of rock drumming. Of the latter, 15-year-old lodger Abi is in a band, but her roadie, 70-something Dorothy, is the expert, which is a nice touch.

    In spite of these digressions, the story rattles along at a decent pace and there are various surprises in store, often involving frightening levels of threat and violence.

    The power of this book, though, lies in the warm personalities and dark humour of the Skelfs, and by the end readers will be just as interested in their relationships with each other as the mysteries they are trying to solve.

    The Great Silence, by Doug Johnstone, Orenda Books, 309pp, £8.99

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