Review: The Great Silence

Doug Johnstone – The Great Silence (Blog Tour)

Published by Orenda Books, paperback £8.99. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

First, the official blurb: Keeping on top of the family funeral directors’ and private investigation businesses is no easy task for the Skelf women, and when matriarch Dorothy discovers a human foot while walking the dog, a perplexing case presents itself. Daughter Jenny and grand-daughter Hannah have their hands full too: the mysterious circumstances of a dying woman have led them into an unexpected family drama, Hannah’s new astrophysicist colleague claims he’s receiving messages from outer space, and the Skelfs’ teenaged lodger has a devastating experience. Nothing is clear as the women are immersed ever deeper in their most challenging cases yet. But when the daughter of Jenny’s violent and fugitive ex-husband goes missing without trace and a wild animal is spotted roaming Edinburgh’s parks, real danger presents itself, and all three Skelfs are in peril.

It’s no secret that I’m a massive fan of Doug Johnstone’s writing. It’s also no secret that I’ve loved the previous two novels in the Skelfs trilogy, A Dark Matter and The Big Chill (do check out my reviews). So I was predisposed to love The Great Silence – in fact, I’ve been looking forward to reading it so much that I couldn’t bear to start it because then inevitably I would finish it and not have the joy of anticipation any longer. Yes, that’s pretty stupid, but…

The Skelfs are a family in Edinburgh, three generations of women – Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah – running two family businesses, funeral directors and private investigators, with Hannah also balancing her studies in physics at Edinburgh University. At the end of The Big Chill, we left them dealing with a very real threat to the family, and with the fallout of the cases they had been working on. And all this while navigating the paths of grief after the death of family patriarch Jim at the beginning of A Dark Matter.

The Great Silence opens a year on from the previous novel, and with opening lines and pages that don’t instantly jolt our senses to high alert as the previous two novels did, but feel more elegiac – until the peace of Dorothy’s early morning dog walk on Bruntsfield Links is disturbed when her collie, Einstein, discovers an embalmed human foot…

The whole opening section is a series of highs and calm followed swiftly by lows and chaos: Jenny has three gin and tonics before 11am as she trawls Leith on the trail of an escaped prisoner and thinks of the relationship she has recently lost. Hannah celebrates her graduation and stellar personal news – then returns to the flat she shares with girlfriend Indy, to find someone has broken in, immediately instilling fear. Abi, the teenager semi-adopted by the Skelfs in the last book, is building herself anew as part of a band – drumming teacher Dorothy being their roadie-cum-chaperone – until someone appears to crush the progress she has made and inflict new wounds.

There’s a lot to take in during these early chapters, as Hannah and Jenny take on new PI cases, Indy faces her own family issues and something rather larger than Einstein is spotted prowling Edinburgh’s parks. And then a child goes missing, with the panic and fear of this short scene bleeding off the page into the reader as fictional horrors make way for one that is a nightmare for too many people in real life.

Each PI case and each funeral the Skelfs deal with get their turn in the spotlight as the point of view moves smoothly between the three women; details are examined, conversations had (some of those involving the embalmed foot inquiry are so exquisitely pitched I didn’t know whether to laugh or recoil in horror; though as all was revealed I felt only sorrow) and mysteries solved.

The final confrontation sees Jenny write the last lines of a chapter from her past and get the kind of wild frontier justice that is barely a hair’s breadth from vengeance, and I can’t see any reader thinking it should have played out any differently. She and her family need this, however hard the fallout might be later.

There are some very deliberate nods back to the earlier books in The Great Silence, and in particular the penultimate scene circles back to the beginning of A Dark Matter, tying the trilogy together firmly. And then, is that a hint? Well, I do hope so…

Part of the power of these novels is the carefully woven plots but the main strength, and what will bring me back to them years from now, is the characters. The three Skelf women in particular are so exquisitely drawn, so compelling: good points, flaws, stupid actions, smart thoughts, science and soulfulness, selfish and generous. Johnstone, always excellent in creating female characters, has triumphed in these novels in the mix of generations and personalities; in Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah as individuals, in relationships with outsiders and as a family unit. I find myself wondering if I will bump into them if I head across Bruntsfield Links; I see myself reflected in each of them in turn, feel their pain and triumphs, and the love that underpins their relationships.

I am all out of pithy, well-turned phrases. The Great Silence is sad, funny, horrible, uplifting, fascinating, deeply personal and universal. It has taken up residence in the back of my head and I don’t think it will ever pack its bags and leave, and frankly I don’t want it to. It’s everything the final book in a trilogy should be, and it’s everything a Doug Johnstone novel ever is, turned up to 11 with broken drumsticks thrown into the crowd and squalling feedback from a guitar artfully dropped on the empty stage. I hope there will be more, for I am definitely a #Skelfaholic but if there isn’t, well, what a marvellous ride it’s been.

Doug Johnstone is the author of 12 previous novels, most recently The Big Chill (2020). Several of his books have been bestsellers and three, A Dark Matter (2020), Breakers (2019) and The Jump (2015), were shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. He has taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions over the last decade – including at a funeral parlour ahead of writing A Dark Matter – and has been an arts journalist for more than 20 years. Doug is also a songwriter and musician, plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers – and is player-manager of the Scotland Writers Football Club. He lives in Edinburgh.

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @doug_johnstone
Find his website at: https://dougjohnstone.com/

Don’t forget to check out all the other reviews on the blog tour!

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