Review: Black Hearts

Doug Johnstone – Black Hearts (Blog Tour)

Author Doug Johnstone (Picture Duncan McGlynn)

Published by Orenda Books, paperback £8.99. Also available in ebook and audiobook. You can buy books direct from the publisher online at: https://orendabooks.co.uk/ 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: The Skelf women live in the shadow of death every day, running the family funeral directors and private investigator business in Edinburgh. But now their own grief intertwines with that of their clients, as they are left reeling by shocking past events. A fist-fight by an open grave leads Dorothy to investigate the possibility of a faked death, while a young woman’s obsession with Hannah threatens her relationship with Indy and puts them both in mortal danger. An elderly man claims he’s being abused by the ghost of his late wife, while ghosts of another kind come
back to haunt Jenny from the grave … pushing her to breaking point. As the Skelfs struggle with increasingly unnerving cases and chilling danger lurks close to home, it becomes clear that grief, in all its forms, can be deadly…

There are excellent standalone novels out in the world – and Doug Johnstone has written a fair few over the years (check out my reviews for Fault Lines and Breakers). But there’s something a bit special about series. I heard someone say on a panel once that the series novel, where a character can grow and change, is the privilege of genre fiction, and it’s so true: literary fiction series are a rarity, but in crime, scifi, horror and romance they abound.

Among my personal pantheon are the three Skelf women, Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah, who are an absolute joy to spend time with – I cheered when he decided the original trilogy of novels featuring them would expand into a series. And while Black Hearts gives you plenty of background where it’s needed, you will get much more from it if you have read the others (if you don’t, I’m confident you’re going to want to go back to the start after reading this one!). 

They have had so much thrown at them from the opening pages of A Dark Matter through The Big Chill to the close of The Great Silence, and have each changed even as they have endured; supporting each other even as they sometimes chafed at the roles they found themselves taking on. And now there’s more to deal with…

Black Hearts opens with a funeral, Dorothy walking through the cemetery in an almost pensive mood – rudely interrupted by a fist fight between two of the mourners that leads to a new case for the private investigation side of the Skelf empire. Meanwhile, Jenny is swimming off Portobello beach, still thinking of the events at the end of the previous book, in a scene that suggests the therapy Dorothy and Hannah have insisted on is more than necessary. Hannah and Indy are adjusting to married life and exploring the path between familiarity and getting into a rut.

There are funerals and investigations that weave their way through the novel. There’s Laura, a student, who loses her grip on reality as she loses someone close to her. There’s Danny, who mother died after his father went missing. There’s elderly Japanese widower Udo, who thinks he is being haunted – though his bruises are all too real. There are also faces from the past that are tough to deal with and turn downright dangerous. While Dorothy is keen to see another side to the story, Jenny is very much not, which become a cause of friction between mother and daughter. Jenny is grieving for someone she came to despise and cannot reconcile those feelings, let alone process the trauma that runs alongside. She prefers to block out the memories with gin than deal with them soberly in therapy; she’s pushing people away and falling apart – and the discovery of a body on a beach might just be the last straw.

Elsewhere, conversations about greener alternatives to traditional burial and cremation, and the dip into Japanese traditions (including the wonderful idea of the wind phone to talk to lost loved ones) all had me fascinated. The astrophysics bamboozles me as much as it blows my mind, but the idea that the universe is so much more than we know fits beautifully into this story about discoveries and endless differences. Foxes appear several times, a nod to Japanese myth as well as a reminder that nature is close by even in a city.

The idea that everyone grieves differently is given free rein here, with some extreme examples. But while parts of the plot set the heart racing, it’s the parts in between that for me hold the greatest power; the introspective moments, the fracturing and rebuilding. It’s a novel about pain, trauma and grief, but while that sounds miserable and depressing trust me it’s not – it’s darkly funny at several points, and it’s quietly life-affirming too.

Johnstone said during his recent Bloody Scotland panel that you can write about any subject if you treat it with respect and empathy. If you want a masterclass in respect and empathy, this is the novel for you. I talked at the top of this review about a series allowing you to see a character change. But I don’t think I’ve ever read a depiction of the fallout from trauma that is as painful as the portrait of Jenny here. She is broken, bereft, barely functioning. I rarely get emotional reading a novel, but there was a point about two-thirds of the way through Black Hearts where I had to put the book down as I couldn’t focus for the tears. 

There are shocking, desperate, manic scenes as Johnstone essentially turns it up to 11 towards the end, but afterwards there’s a quiet coda and a speck of hope for the future. He has done his research – Indy’s environmental concerns, Udo’s Japanese traditions, the everyday details of the business of death – but these are, to extend the musical metaphor, grace notes and descants: lovely to have, but not vital. They are nothing without the melody that is passed between the three Skelf women, sometimes in different keys and adding new flourishes, but always returning to the essential through line and the wonderful harmony of the trio, supporting each other whatever life (or death) throws at them. Black Hearts may leave a trail of broken readers behind it, but I would not want to be without this absolutely exquisite novel. 

Doug Johnstone is the author of 13 previous novels, most recently The Great Silence, described as “‘A novel [that] underlines just how accomplished Johnstone has become” by the Daily Mail. He has been shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year three times, and the Capital Crime Best Independent Voice. The Big Chill was longlisted for Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. He has taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions, and has been an arts journalist for 20 years. Doug is also a songwriter and musician with five albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He’s also 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/

You can watch Doug’s panel from Bloody Scotland – Death As The Day Job, with Mary Paulson-Ellis and AK Turner – online with a single ticket (£5) or digital pass (£40 for all the weekend’s streamed events) until 6 October. Visit https://bloodyscotland.com/watch/ for more information and ticket links.

Don’t forget to catch up with all the other reviews on the blog tour

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