The Great Silence by Doug Johnstone

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The Great Silence by Doug Johnstone

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A different take on the Edinburgh crime scene as the Skelf women deal with the surprise discovery of a human foot, potential aliens, a dying woman and the return of a murderous ex-husband. It's more light-hearted than it sounds. Not quite 'cosy' but very 'human' and raises some important questions that might linger in the mind after the cases have been resolved.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 300 Date: August 2021
Publisher: Orenda Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1913193836

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For those who, like me, haven't come across the Skelfs before, I'll risk a quick synopsis of who's who – although Johnstone does a good job of bringing the backstory in without being heavy handed about it. Skelf isn't some fantastic creature, though it sounds as though it ought to be, it is merely the surname of a family of undertakers. Undertakers and private investigators. Dorothy is the matriarch – Californian by birth and instinct, she married a scot and ended up helping to run the Edinburgh undertaking firm that had been in the family for generations. Recently widowed and now involved with a black Swedish police officer. Swedish by nationality. Scottish police. Daughter Jenny, 46, is haunted by her still-living husband – a violent escaped prisoner. And grand-daughter is about to graduate with a first-class physics degree and join the academic staff next term.

These are the Skelf women. They are all involved to some degree in the family firm of dealing with the dead and their grieving survivors. They are all involved to some degree in the family side-hustle of privately detecting the nefarious, or at least strange, goings on in the neighbourhood.

Edinburgh. Detectives. I know what you might thinking. Hasn't Ian Rankin got this ground completely covered? In terms of the police procedural (or police breaking procedurals) he definitely has, so Johnstone's approach is to come at the city from a different angle. A somewhat more obtuse angle.

It isn't quite what I would suggests fits the uncomfortable "cosy crime" niche but occupies the middle ground between that and the harder-edged crime thrillers. In some ways it reminds me of those old American TV series like Columbo or Quincy, MD – where some nasty things happen, but the nastiness isn't really the point. The point is just the puzzle. Only when the Skelf women get involved, things can on occasion get very nasty indeed – not because they are that way inclined, but because on occasions they are not, or have not been, the best just of people. Their skeletons aren't in the closet, some of them are hiding out somewhere not too far away and turning up to break in to their properties – even if just to wish someone Congratulations! Death threats hang heavy in the air.

As we meet them in this third episode, Dorothy is walking the dog in the park, the dog wanders off, the dog comes back with a human foot in its mouth.

Meanwhile Jenny is hired by the not-so-delightful off-spring of a dying woman to find out if they're about to be cheated out of their inheritance, and Hannah's new astrophysicist colleague is receiving messages from outer space, or maybe not.

The set-up tells you that at the very least this particular crime-ride is going to involve a certain amount of humour. It is wry humour though, played for smiles rather than outright laughs, and it isn't allowed to get in the way of the tension as the plots develop. Three women, one business, three cases – and the dangers of their own private lives playing into the mix.

In case you're wondering about the relevance of the family business…well it does play into one of the cases, and more generally there is the benefit of driving a hearse around the city in that you never get a parking ticket no matter which building you decide to haul up in front of.

As an easy-read crime novel, I enjoyed this one. It kept the pages turning at the appropriate rate on the 'what happens next' principle. I warmed to the characters, all of them quirky and unexpected. If the actual plot-lines were a little implausible, none of them are impossible.

But what possibly lifts this above the average is the unanswered questioning of bigger things that is just left on the page in amongst everything else. Questions about human connection. Questions about the other great silence that of space and what does or doesn't lie out there among the stars. Questions about family, especially in dysfunctional families where lies are allowed to lie for too long. Questions about death and how we respond to it, especially the death of the unborn. Questions about mental health and its opposite. Questions about violence and assumptions and rationalisations.

It's an easy read, an enjoyable crime caper, three cases for the price of one…but what it will leave you with afterwards is more likely to be those bigger questions.

For yet another take on murder in this Scottish city (as if it's not already hard-enough done by) we can recommend a step back in time with The Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley

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