Review: The Big Chill

Doug Johnstone – The Big Chill

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

Six months on from the events of A Dark Matter – which saw the Skelf women deal with death and betrayal, alongside running a funeral directors and a private investigation business after the demise of patriarch Jim – and things are settling down and a new routine emerging. Or rather, they should be, but it’s unlikely that Doug Johnstone will let Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah have much respite in The Big Chill, as he shows the fallout from the explosions of the previous novel potentially has a lengthy half-life.

In his standalones, Johnstone puts his characters through the wringer then brings down the curtain and moves on. But in a series, we expect them to change and grow; shrugging off the events of the previous book does a disservice to characters and readers both. Johnstone is careful not to do this, with both physical and mental health being addressed, and part of what makes this book as absorbing is the fact we can see the fallout from the damage of the previous book. (If you haven’t read A Dark Matter, there is enough information to make The Big Chill make sense, but you will get a richer experience if you start at the beginning.)

Dorothy is finding solace in work, Hannah is seeing a counsellor. Jenny finds neither option palatable; she’s finding a comforting distraction in Liam, and in alcohol. Physical damage, psychological damage – both need time to heal. Six months might be enough for the one, but not for the other. Especially not when Jenny’s ex-husband, Craig, muddies the waters, proving that it’s harder to leave the past behind than you might want, and that a thrown stone can have a painful impact on many people. 

A Dark Matter exploded into life in the first sentence; in The Big Chill we build up through four pages until the first moment of horror: Dorothy and staff member Archie are attending to a funeral when a car crashes through the cemetery gates, the police in hot pursuit, and promptly careens into the open grave a grieving family are standing around.

As I’ve often said, the best crime fiction doesn’t shy away from bringing up social issues, and Johnstone has in recent books not been timid when it comes to tackling difficult themes, including suicide and life in poverty.  Here he touches on homelessness, as the runaway driver turns out to be a homeless man, and Dorothy wants to give him a funeral – but only when she has found out who he is. His story is a thread that ties the book together, end to end.

Johnstone handles the man’s story with a light touch, laying out the realities of the lives of those who are homeless and those who try to support them without judgement. He examines the effects of being addicted to drugs and what you’re prepared to do to fund that habit; how hard it is to leave that life. And perhaps most importantly, what situations can lead to that descent into a life no-one wants to lead but many find themselves unable to escape.

Meanwhile, one of Dorothy’s drumming students, Abi, fails to show up for a lesson, leading the Skelf women into a puzzling investigation, and Hannah is shocked by the sudden death of a lecturer – and then shocked again by her discoveries about his life.

Secrets and lies are staple fodder in crime fiction, but it’s always interesting to see what an author does with old tropes. Here Johnstone examines what happens when a well-meaning lie gets out of hand, and we also watch what happens when the chinks in the armour some people use to keep the world at bay is exploited and exposed, such as when Jenny, almost despite herself, spills all her thoughts to Dorothy and Hannah about what Craig is capable of.

Of course, secrets and lies almost always come with pain somewhere along the line, and Johnstone again reaches for the noir structure he has used to such great effect in so many different ways in earlier books: put simply, choices have inevitable consequences. The homeless man is a product of choices of his own making, but also of choices made by others without care for the effect on him. Abi’s mum and Hannah’s lecturer make choices that seemed like the right thing to do but then twist out of their control and turn out to have consequences for others.

The ending of The Big Chill feels to me less upbeat than that of A Dark Matter, though there is plenty of resolution after the revelations and some promise of the positive in the future. But one thing still hangs over the Skelf women and those they care about – are we going to get a resolution in book three? I feel like they deserve it, and also that there is only so long you can sustain a threat, but we will have to wait and see. Johnstone never goes for the easy happy ending, so I wouldn’t bet on it, but equally his books generally show that actions have consequences, so perhaps…

Johnstone has spoken in interviews this year about this being a trilogy, for now, as he has other stories he wants to tell. I can but hope Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah start haunting his dreams so he comes back to them further down the line, for the Skelf women and their world are wonderful creations that deserve so many superlatives and to get into the hands of so many readers. I am impatient for 2021 to arrive for many reasons, but top of the list is to read the third part of this trilogy. In the meantime, thank you Doug Johnstone for cheering up this <expletive deleted> year with your gift of the Skelfs.

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @doug_johnstone
And check out his website here: https://dougjohnstone.com/

You can read my review of the first novel featuring the Skelfs, A Dark Matter, here.

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