This opens with the funeral pyre (illegally done in the backyard) of undertaker Jim Skelf. Having spent a lifetime arranging the burial or cremation of others, Jim asked in his will for none of that, for instead to be burnt on a pyre in his garden and this the family does. Jim was the patriarch of the family. Or was he? For we are soon introduced to the protagonists of the story: Jim’s wife, Dorothy; his daughter, Jenny; his granddaughter, Hannah. As well as the family’s long-established undertakers, Jim had a fledgling private investigation business and the women now have to take the reigns of the familiar (undertaking) and the unfamiliar (PI work).

The three women each take on different cases for their own reasons. Dorothy has learnt something about Jim which has her doubting their relationship, she also takes on a job that Jim had accepted just before his death; Jenny is hired to investigate a woman’s husband while helping out at a funeral, the woman the daughter of the deceased; Hannah’s friend Mel has disappeared and she is increasingly worried about her. Alongside this PI work are the funerals, burials, and cremations that continue.

One thing I really liked about this book is that it dealt with death. Of course, many books feature death, especially genre titles – crime fiction, thriller, horror, etc – and broadly speaking A Dark Matter might be described as literary crime fiction. But most such titles don’t really consider death. Death is something that happens, a plot device – a character is killed, a body is discovered – that drives the narrative forward. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. I read many genre titles. And certainly, A Dark Matter features death in that sense, too. But where it goes beyond, and its setting in an undertaker allows it do so, is to tackle society’s taboo of death. People don’t like to dwell on death, on what happens after, on what will become of their bodies, and A Dark Matter considers all of this, discusses it, and grapples with it. It does so sensitively, but profoundly, and while it can be uncomfortable reading (it is a taboo after all, and I have to admit to being as guilty of it as anyone) it is also very rewarding. After all, death is something that we all have to face at some point and there’s a good argument that we shouldn’t be so shy to do so.

A Dark Matter is an incredibly well-written book and I’m glad I discovered it. It has a multi-stranded plot that the author weaves with great skill, and each character travels their own arc, their inner and outer conflicts resolving satisfactorily. This is the first of the author’s books that I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last.

James Pierson 5/5

A Dark Matter by Doug Johnstone
Orenda Books 9781912374984 pbk Jan 2020