Three generations of women in the Skelf family operating both a funeral home and a private investigation agency may sound like an unusual premise for a crime fiction book, however author Doug Johnstone makes it work. It works so well that The Opposite of Lonely is the fifth book in the series and there is a large group of fans known as Skelfaholics. What is the appeal in the Skelfs series?
Part of it comes from the setting – Edinburgh. Those familiar with the city will recognise familiar streets and parks. Johnstone provides even more detail. He names actual restaurants and coffee shops. Even though The Opposite of Lonely is a piece of fiction, the occasional specific detail provided by Johnstone helps ground the book in reality. The chapters set in the funeral home are also very authentic no doubt down to the fact that Johnstone was once a writer in residence at a funeral home.
The three protagonists in this book are closely related. Dorothy is the family matriarch. In addition to running the family businesses, she plays the drums in a band and has a habit of taking people who are feeling a bit lost under her wing. This time around she takes a personal interest in Brodie, a young man who has been crashing strangers’ funerals. After arranging a funeral service for a traveller, Dorothy also becomes protective of the travellers when a suspicious fire happens in one of their caravans at an illegal campsite. She is concerned that the police officers are not conducting a thorough investigation. As the officers involved work at the same station as her boyfriend Thomas, tensions start to rise.
Her daughter, Jenny, has not always had the healthiest of relationships with the men in her life. In previous books, she has been self-destructive and angry. Jenny is in a better place in the Opposite of Lonely. She feels more balanced and has developed a friendship with Archie, the mortician in the family business. Jenny accepts an unusual case in tracking down her former sister-in-law. To say that the two women have a strained relationship is a massive understatement.
Dorothy’s granddaughter, Hannah, is studying to be an astrophysicist but helps out with the family businesses as required. Her wife, Indy works in the funeral home. Hannah takes on a case investigating some conspiracy theorists who have been harassing a former astronaut. Things gets more complicated when the astronaut appears to take a personal interest in Hannah.
These three characters are a joy to read. They are interesting complex women. Their characters are not static and their life experiences influence their actions. Each chapter is written from the perspective of one of the women. Johnstone expertly pulls together the fast moving and different storylines.
Johnstone often addresses social issues in his books. A couple of the storylines in The Opposite of Lonely focus on the imbalance of power in relationships, demonstrating how this can lead to abuse. It may be very violent or it may be manipulative – both can have damaging consequences.
As the series is set in a funeral home, where the characters are dealing with death on a regular basis, you could assume that the book is very dark and morbid. There are some dark moments, but there are also some humorous and touching scenes. Johnstone is a very empathetic writer. As you read his work, you can connect with how the characters are feeling. You will be moved by the scenes involving the wind telephone booth that the Skelfs have in their garden. A wind telephone is an unconnected telephone that grieving individuals can use to connect with their loved ones. Obviously it is a one-sided conversation but many people who are grieving find the wind telephone comforting and helpful in dealing with their loss. The appeal of the Skelf books is that in spite of the fact that they deal with death, they are actually life-affirming.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars