“Black Hearts” by Doug Johnstone – Book Review

“We are all different versions of ourselves with different people.”

The Skelfs have two businesses which they run out of their large Victorian house in Edinburgh. They run a funeral parlour AND a private detective agency.

It is up to the three strong Skelf women to carry the legacy of Jim Skelf, now deceased. Three generations of women, each with their own distinct set of hopes, fears, biases, and opinions – tied together with deep affection.

Dorothy Skelf – 72 years old and Jim’s widow. She grew up in California, but has lived in Edinburgh for the past fifty years as Jim’s wife and business partner. She is very fit for her age due to her love of yoga and her passion for playing the drums. Despite her continued grief for her late husband, Dorothy is a strong matriarch who keeps her family and the business on track. She does so with the help of D.I. Thomas Olsson, a black, Swedish policeman fifteen years her junior, yet increasingly important to her both personally and professionally. Though they are now lovers, Dorothy still feels that she is betraying her late husband’s memory… In this book Dorothy is hired by an elderly Japanese man who wants her to discover why his late wife’s spirit seems to be abusing him. Also, she investigates a pseudocide (pretend suicide) on behalf of a distraught young man.

Jenny – Dorothy’s daughter is a 46 year-old divorcée.  She works more on the private detective side of the business than the funeral side. Still reeling from the events of the previous book, Jenny is lonely and regretting parting ways with Liam. In this book Jenny is spiraling. The discovery of her ex-husband’s body finds her drinking far too much and she has traitorous, even suicidal thoughts. Also, she finds friendship with the Skelf’s resident mortician.

Hannah – Jenny’s daughter and Dorothy’s granddaughter, is 23 years old. She is married to Indy, who works for the family firm and is now a funeral director. Hannah has recently earned her PhD in astrophysics and works at the Royal Observatory. She also now works part-time in both family businesses. In this book Hannah is being stalked by a girl named Laura Abbott – jeopardizing her relationship with her wife.

Indy– is Hannah’s wife and works as a funeral director for the Skelf’s Funeral Home.

Schrödinger – the Skelf family’s ginger tabby, is a welcome diversion throughout the novel. Aloof, yet affectionate, Schrödinger is grieving for Einstein, the canine member of the family, who passed away in the last book.

After reading the first three books, I’ve discovered I just can’t get enough of Doug Johnstone’s Skelf series. If anything, I found it even more enjoyable than the first three books, due to the fact that now I’m familiar with the characters, and they have become almost like friends. If ever there was a ‘character-rich’ series, this is it.

With a unique family dynamic, and an even more unique family business, this series had me hooked from the beginning. The Skelf women are memorable, moral, and authentic.

In addition to the family’s personal stories, I enjoyed following the cases they were working on throughout the book, and how the women support one another.

The title of this book was perfect for the content. Black hearts both literally and figuratively abound.

“To live in the hearts of those we love is not to die.”

Set in Edinburgh, the novel explores themes of empathy, loss, grief, guilt, and coping strategies.  The author’s obvious affection for his home city permeates the entire novel – as does his love of music.Written with empathy and skill, this crime novel displayed a richness in characterization along with unique and clever plotting that makes this series stand out from its peers.  The books read like a pleasing cross between crime thriller and literary fiction. I found the three strong female protagonists fascinating, and I am eager to read more about their lives and exploits in further books. Guess you could say I’m an ardent Skelf fan.  The ending of “Black Hearts” presents the reader with breathtaking tension.   Highly recommended!

This review was written voluntarily and my rating was in no way influenced by the fact that I received a complimentary digital copy of this novel from Orenda Books.   It will be published by Orenda Books on September 29, 2022

ISBN: 9781914585296 –  ASIN: B09YMMQ2T4  –  300 pages


Doug Johnstone is an author, journalist and musician based in Edinburgh. He’s had nine novels published, most recently Fault Lines. His previous novel, The Jump, was a finalist for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. Several of his other novels have been award winners and bestsellers, and he’s had short stories published in numerous anthologies and literary magazines. His work has been praised by the likes of Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Irvine Welsh. Several of his novels have been optioned for film and television. Doug is also a Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow. He’s worked as an RLF Fellow at Queen Margaret University, taught creative writing at Strathclyde University and William Purves Funeral Directors. He mentors and assesses manuscripts for The Literary Consultancy and
regularly tutors at Moniack Mhor writing retreat. Doug has released seven albums in various bands, and is drummer, vocalist and occasional guitarist for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He also reviews books for The Big Issue magazine, is player-manager for Scotland Writers Football Club and has a PhD in nuclear physics.

Follow Doug Johnstone on Twitter and/or Instagram.

About Fictionophile

Fiction reviewer ; Goodreads librarian. Retired library cataloger - more time to read! Loves books, gardening, and red wine. I have been a reviewer member of NetGalley since October 2013. I review titles offered by Edelweiss, and participate in blog tours with TLC Book Tours.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Mystery fiction, Orenda Books and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to “Black Hearts” by Doug Johnstone – Book Review

  1. Love the sound of this series, I’m adding it to my WTR

    Like

  2. Carla says:

    It sounds like this series is still a winner for you, Lynne.

    Liked by 1 person

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