Review: A Dark Matter

Doug Johnstone – A Dark Matter

Published by Orenda Books, paperback £8.99. I received a proof copy from the publisher for review purposes.

I’ve long been a fan of Doug Johnstone’s exquisitely crafted novels, whether on the breathlessly tumbling plot-heavy side such as Hit And Run or Crash Land, or the heartbreaking character work of The Jump and Breakers. A Dark Matter is a departure from his usual, in that it’s the first in a trilogy rather than a standalone, and divides its time between three characters, its multiple viewpoints leading to a more complex, layered narrative. It’s also a showcase for Johnstone’s unerring ability – still sadly an issue in crime fiction – to write real, believable, flawed female characters. Here he gives us three, Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah, in generations of an Edinburgh family, the Skelfs, who run twin businesses: a funeral directors and a private investigation agency.

In an opening sentence paying homage to Iain Banks’ famed first line of The Crow Road, Johnstone thrusts us into an emotionally intimate moment as the family pay their last respects to patriarch Jim by carrying out his last wishes. Brought together by the funeral, we are neatly introduced to the main characters – Dorothy, Jim’s widow; their daughter Jenny, her ex-husband Craig, and their daughter Hannah; plus Hannah’s girlfriend, Indy, and Archie, the latter two who work for the family.

As the gathering breaks up, we begin our journeys with the Skelf women. Hannah and Indy return home to find flatmate Mel is missing. How seriously will the police take the report of a student missing for less than 24 hours? Dorothy, examining the accounts that Jim always looked after, finds money missing – regular amounts have been going from the business to an account she doesn’t recognise for ten years. Can her friend Thomas, a police officer, help her trace it? Jenny, a phone call killing off the last of her regular freelance journalism work, packs her belongings up and moves back to the family home to help Dorothy, “just for a while”. She reluctantly agrees to help Hannah investigate Mel’s disappearance – and then takes on a case of her own, a wife who thinks her husband is having an affair. 

The three women aren’t perfect, they make mistakes, jump to conclusions, do and say things they know they shouldn’t. The female minor characters too are human, fallible, feeling. But compared with some of the men they encounter, these women are Amazons and paragons. For every decent man they meet, there’s a sneering sexist, an adulterer and worse. Other male writers would flaunt this as proof men can be feminists too. Johnstone lays it all out as simply how things are – the crime novel may not be the real world, but many of the actions of its characters are pretty damn real. Fiction holds a mirror to society; crime fiction is where future historians will look to see what was really happening; if journalism is the first draft of history, crime fiction is the second. Whatever your preferred truism, A Dark Matter is your book.

Things get black hole-level dark as the book progresses and the women chase their cases, with the climax being particularly awful both physically and emotionally. But that’s not to suggest it’s an unrelentingly gloomy novel despite the fact several funerals are involved; there are lighter moments and flashes of humour, and some beautifully thoughtful passages, in particular Dorothy’s inner musings about life and Hannah’s on her reliance on physics to make sense of the world. 

In some ways this feels like a very personal novel from Johnstone – his love of drumming, his background in physics and his stint as a writer-in-residence at a funeral directors are all obvious links, as well as the Edinburgh setting, which is the city he lives in (all that’s missing is football, but there’s two books to go…). However, while it’s an extra treat for the long-time reader, I don’t feel it will push away someone new to his work as his knowledge is used to lend depth to the characters rather than as a way to show off. On a second read, you really start to notice the little touches; I suspect on subsequent readings more will be revealed, for this is definitely a novel to put on the shelf to return to.

There’s something of an epilogue after the shocks and revelations, which suggests both finality in some ways and potential for things good and not so good to happen in the next instalment. The multiple viewpoints, the artfully tangled narrative and these three wonderful Skelf women have come together to create something compelling. A Dark Matter is – and I don’t use this word lightly – unique. Get yourself a copy of this book, then call in sick, banish the kids to the garden and silence your other half with gaffer tape across the gob, because you are going to want to read this in one sitting with no interruptions. A Dark Matter? A shining example, more like.

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @doug_johnstone

You can read my review of Doug’s previous novel, Breakers (which was shortlisted for the 2019 McIlvanney Prize), here, and find my thoughts on Fault Lines here.

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