Monday, 14 September 2020

Review: Qualified and I am the most coldhearted son of a b*tch you will ever meet (JustOut Theatre)

JustOut Theatre

In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two more radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: Qualified and I am the most coldhearted son of a bitch you will ever meet. The radio version of these reviews was broadcast on Saturday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. But here’s the blog version…

In a previous post, I gave a bit of introduction to JustOut Stays In, a series of radio plays that have been written, directed and produced by northern creatives. The plays are currently available to listen to, for free, on YouTube and Soundcloud. Links are also available on the JustOut Theatre website.

I’ve been reviewing the plays in pairs, so in this post I’m going to be talking about two more of the pieces: Qualified by Lee Thompson and I am the most coldhearted son of a bitch you will ever meet by Issy Flower. (For brevity, I’m going to be referring to Flower’s play as Coldhearted in this review. I just want to be clear that is simply for ease of typing, and not a criticism! I think the full title is very clever, as I think will become clear when I get to my review of the play.)

In the last two reviews of JustOut Stays In plays that I’ve written, I’ve mentioned that I’m picking the pairs for review at random from their programme, but that I’ve been enjoying the way that this has resulted in some interesting companion pieces. Reviewing the plays in pairs – and listening to them together – has really brought out some interesting connections in terms of subject matter and thematic concerns. I really did think that this wouldn’t be the case with today’s pair, and I’m still not sure if it is or not. Qualified and Coldhearted are, to be fair, really substantially different pieces. And yet…

Let’s start with Qualified, and you’ll see what I mean.

Written by Lee Thompson, directed by Keira MacAlister, and performed by Rebecca McGreevy, Qualified is the longest piece I’ve heard so far in the series. Like several of the others, it’s in monologue form, though, as we learn, what we’re actually listening to is one side of a conversation (and we never hear the other side).

The narrator is Nadia, who is studying for a PGCE and on a teaching placement. The play begins with Nadia recounting a difficult encounter with a student who she calls Toni. It was Nadia’s first experience of conducting an after-school detention, which culminated in her getting into an argument with Toni. As Nadia runs through the confrontation and the tension rises, we hear the sound of cello strings being plucked. The plucking strings give way to bowed notes, and then music begins to play.

As we learn, this music is in Nadia’s head. She’s begun to hear cello music in her mind as she attempts to navigate the pressures of her course. And this is no uplifting personal soundtrack, it’s a persistent and intrusive accompaniment that threatens to overwhelm. (And I’ll say here, I think the choice of instrument here was really inspired. There’s something both melancholy and pensive about the sound of a cello, and solo pieces tend to have a haunting quality to them, which makes it a distinctly unsettling instrument to have as your internal soundtrack.) Nadia describes the effect of the cello music, questioning what it might mean and what might have caused it. We realize then that her monologue is, in fact, part of a therapy session with an unseen (unheard) therapist named Jane. We don’t hear Jane’s questions or comments at any point, but some things Nadia says indicate what she might be responding to.

Because of the longer running time, Thompson’s script gives us time and space to get to know Nadia – though, as with some of the other JustOut plays I’ve reviewed, there’s some good use of the unsaid here, and some hinting lines that leave the audience to fill in the gaps. For instance, Nadia’s relationship with her parents is brought up at times, but never directly explored. I particularly liked the subtly suggestive line about Nadia’s father, as she’s pondering whether he might also have experienced auditory hallucinations: He seems, she says, ‘like an oboe in the mind kind of fella’.

Ultimately, though, Qualified isn’t really about the cello. As Nadia talks through the problem with her therapist, what unfolds is the story of a woman struggling to keep on top of the demands of her course, her work, and her relationships with others (and, of course, her relationship with herself). While Lucia Rimini’s cello playing keeps a sedate and stately pace, Rebecca McGreevy’s performance as Nadia has a less measured trajectory. The speed of her delivery increases, the pitch becomes more fevered, until the sense of a suffocating, overwhelming force acting on her becomes almost tangible. And then she retreats again, into a brittle jokiness or a faux positive consideration of possible medical explanations. It’s a powerful performance, supported by excellent direction from MacAlister.

Credit, too, should go to Gabriel Stewart’s editing. Despite the lockdown constraints – and I note from JustOut’s Twitter feed that getting the cello accompaniment right on this on took a bit of Zoom-wrangling – the music and voice performances are perfectly balanced. They aren’t complimentary, as such, because at times the cello is absolutely at odds with the frenzied pace of the monologue. But they ‘fit’. I think by that I mean that it’s completely believable that the cello is indeed in Nadia’s head. Even if it really shouldn’t be.

Speaking of things that shouldn’t be in someone’s head, let’s turn to the second play, Coldhearted. (How’s that for a segue…)

Coldhearted is written by Issy Flower, and directed by Ben Wilson. Again, it’s a monologue, which is performed by Alice Schofield. Coldhearted is a shorter piece than Qualified, and the subject matter is really quite different.

As we discover immediately, our narrator has become fixated on a pair of blue eyes. A pair of eyes that she thinks are ‘lovely’, and whose colour she debates with her mother. A pair of eyes that, startlingly, belong to Ted Bundy.

Flower’s unsettling monologue is told by a young woman who has become fixated on the infamous serial killer, shortly after his arrest and the revelation of his crimes. She talks about her attraction to him – she waxes lyrical about his eyes and his sexy hands, adding ‘But I know what those hands did.’ At several points, she acknowledges that her feelings towards the killer are wrong – abhorrent even – particularly as she attends the same university as some of his victims.

Coldhearted is a bold attempt to try and explore the mentality of a woman who, despite having no criminal inclinations herself, falls in love with a notorious and (to most people) repellent killer. Flower’s script bravely tackles some issues head on – including the distasteful acknowledgment of sexual fantasies of victimhood – but also keeps the focus squarely on the introspection and self-examination of her character. The question here is never ‘Why is Ted Bundy so attractive?’, but rather ‘Why am I feeling this way about Ted Bundy? What does that say about me?’

Which brings us back to that full title. The phrase Flower uses as the title is a quote from Bundy himself. No matter what fantasies our narrator has about his lovely eyes and sexy hands, Bundy’s own assessment of his character – that he is ‘the most coldhearted son of bitch you will ever meet’ – is centred in our mind as we listen to the play. This is a clever technique, as Bundy’s words (without ever actually being spoken in the play) undercut the narrator’s throughout the piece, revealing everything she says to be a fantasy (or a delusion) based more on herself than on him.

In the end, Coldhearted isn’t really about Ted Bundy, any more than Qualified is really about a cello. And it’s in this that the two admittedly very different plays share some common ground. These two pieces are about intrusive thoughts, and the need to question, not just the content of those thoughts (be that a haunting cello solo or sexual fantasies about a serial killer), but also the issues that lie beneath. Without explicitly stating it, both of these plays are about unhappiness, but both tackle that subject in ways that are at once startling and subtle (a very difficult balance to strike).

Once again, I am very impressed by the pieces being published as JustOut Stays In. They really are fulfilling their stated aim of showcasing talent. I’m very much looking forward to the day when I’ll be able to see the JustOut company perform in person, but for now I will repeat my strong recommendation to check out their audio plays.

Qualifed and I am the most coldhearted son of a bitch you will ever meet are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Review: Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute (JustOut Theatre)

JustOut Theatre

In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two more radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute. The radio version of these reviews was broadcast on yesterday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. But here’s the blog version…

In a previous post, I gave a bit of introduction to JustOut Stays In, a series of radio plays that have been written, directed and produced by northern creatives. The plays are currently available to listen to, for free, on YouTube and Soundcloud. Links are also available on the JustOut Theatre website.

I’ve been reviewing the plays in pairs, so in this post I’m going to be talking about two more of the pieces: Bleach by Max Kyte and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute by Suzan Young.

In my last review, I mentioned that I’m choosing my pairs pretty much at random for these reviews. JustOut’s programme is varied, and there are new plays being published regularly (in fact, a new one has gone up since I published my last review). So, pretty much, I just jump in for each review. Last time, this resulted in a really interesting pairing, as Total Slag and To Tell You the Truth, despite being ostensibly quite different, actually made for interesting companion pieces to one another.

I think you can say the same for the two that I’m reviewing this time – although, it has to be said, the effect is heightened by listening to the two together, as this naturally draws out the comparative features. But I do think Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute have some subject matter in common, specifically the problem of confronting (and talking about) serious mental health problems. Both of the female protagonists in these plays are using self-destructive habits to deal with underlying issues, and both are forced to address these (though in different ways).

Let’s begin with Bleach – perhaps the more uncomfortable of the two pieces. Bleach is written by Max Kyte and directed by Yuval Brigg. It’s a two-hander, with Megan Nicholson playing Maeve, and Jake Everett playing her fianc√© Oliver. Their story begins reasonably normally: Oliver returns from a night out for a friend’s birthday, a night out that Maeve has excused herself from. As we discover, it’s not the only social interaction Maeve has managed to avoid – and as conversations between Maeve and Oliver intersperse short monologues from Maeve, we begin to realize the reason why Maeve is reluctant to go out.

Or, rather, we learn about one of the manifestations of the reason why Maeve is reluctant to go out. This is a relatively short piece, and so it serves to sketch a picture, rather than dig deep into the details. The sketch is full enough, however, for the listener to begin to fill in the gaps. As the play’s blurb notes, this is a story about addiction, specifically an addiction to or dependency on harmful behaviours. When Oliver discovers these behaviours, Maeve is forced to confront her habits head-on.

Nicholson gives a subtle and moving performance as Maeve. There is a sense of detachment in the way she delivers the monologues, and a frustration in her conversations with Everett’s Oliver. As I’ve said, Kyte’s script doesn’t go deep into an explanation or background to Maeve’s behaviour – we don’t learn very much at all about her history, for instance, or any underlying mental illness. Instead her disordered thinking is presented in straightforward, but thought-provoking statements – my favourite being, ‘This feels silent’, which says an awful lot more than three words.

Everett’s performance is more emotional and – in all honesty – highly strung. Oliver runs through a range of emotions in quick succession, which sometimes strains both our sympathy and our credibility. This is, in many ways, a result of the format and the short running time. The conversations between Maeve and Oliver feel like truncated versions of conversations that might, in reality, take place over days, weeks or even months. The resolution feels a little hurried, though, and I think this is another of the series that would really benefit from expansion.

I very much enjoyed the writing and performance – particularly Nicholson’s Maeve – here. I do have a criticism, and that is that the stock sound effects are somewhat overbearing and distracting. While I appreciate the constraints under which the creative team are working, the effects (liquid pouring, someone eating, papers turning) are jarring, as they aren’t always seamlessly integrated with the recorded dialogue. This may sound like a minor quibble, but sadly it did affect my enjoyment of the piece.

I’m going to turn now to Mrs O’Connor’s Flute, which is a monologue written by Suzan Young, directed by Rebecca McGreevy, and performed by Becky Kershaw. This piece begins, not with a sound effect, but with a short burst of music (played, surprisingly enough, on a flute).

The character here is a Janet, a woman who has taken a job at a nursing home after her husband loses his job. Much like Maeve in Bleach, Janet has some mental health issues going on that she has not confronted (or, indeed, acknowledged).

Janet’s monologue actually begins with a description of a night shift. Working alone, Janet is suddenly aware of the sound of a flute being played in the room of Margaret O’Connor. She goes to see the woman and has the briefest moment of a conversation (a few lines that are as straightforward, but thought-provoking, as Maeve’s ‘This feels silent’ in the previous play). This momentary connection with the elderly woman sparks a chain of realizations in Janet, leading her to reveal some (but by no means all) of the background to her decision to work at the nursing home, as well as some of the fears and anxieties that the job has brought to her mind.

Or has the job really brought these to her mind – were they not already there? Does the job – and especially the interaction with Mrs O’Connor – offer a way to address these, a confrontation as well as a revelation? Like Maeve, Janet has been engaging in behaviours that are potentially harmful (and not just to herself, to others as well), and it’s only when she’s confronted by someone else’s vulnerability that she’s forced to take a look at her own. Kershaw’s performance is sympathetic and believable, so that the audience sticks with Janet, even when she’s describing behaviour that might otherwise be easy to demonize.

Overall, I think the monologue format in Mrs O’Connor’s Flute works a little better than the conversation in Bleach, as rather than truncating difficult conversations (which undoubtedly must have happened between Janet and her husband), the monologue allows Janet to skip back and forth in time, and to reflect on, rather than repeat the detail of those difficult dialogues. Nevertheless, in both plays, silence takes on a powerful significance, and a strength of both Kyte and Young’s scripts is that they make clever use of what is not said, as well as what is.

Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute are hard-hitting in their subject matter, but the characterization of both Maeve and Janet has a gentleness and sympathy that is compelling and sensitive. The short format of the pieces leaves questions unanswered, but in both cases this is more as provocation for listeners to think through these questions, and to consider the complexities of mental wellbeing and the need for things that feel like silence.

Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

My Year in Books 2020: August

There's a few more titles on my list this month than previously! I read quite a lot in August, although I should probably say that I read almost all of these books (some of which are admittedly novellas, not novels) when I had a week off work. So that might explain why I had so much more timing for reading for part of this month.

My short reviews of the books I read for pleasure this month are belowed, but in case you're curious, here are my reviews from previous months: January, February, March, April, May, June, July

The Whisper Man by Alex North (2019)

I’ve had this one on my to-read pile for a while – so long, in fact, that I can’t remember when or where I bought it. The Whisper Man is a crime novel, but with little touches of horror around the edges. The story unfolds from multiple perspectives (as is quite the fashion in contemporary crime fiction). A young boy has vanished from Featherbank, with eerie echoes of an old case. Fifteen years ago a serial killer abducted and murdered five young boys. The killer was known at the ‘Whisper Man’, because he lured his victims out of their homes by whispering at their windows. But the Whisper Man has been behind bars for many years now, although the body of one of his victims was never found. The story of the investigation into the contemporary case is interwoven with a first-person narration: Tom Kennedy and his son Jake, still grieving after the death of Tom’s wife, have moved to a new house for a fresh start. Jake is a bright, but unusual, child, prone to chatting to imaginary friends. This takes a darker turn when Jake seems to know things about their new home that he really shouldn’t. I really enjoyed The Whisper Man – it’s a proper page-turner. I’ll admit, I did work out one of the big surprises about halfway through, but that wasn’t a problem at all. At the book’s heart is Tom and Jake’s relationship, which is painful, difficult and sometimes challenged, but ultimately sympathetic and engaging.

The Levels by Helen Pendry (2019)

This one has been on my to-read pile since November. I bought it in Aberystwyth last year when we were there for Abertoir, as I wanted to get something from the ‘local fiction’ section of the bookshop. I couldn’t find anything set/written/published in Aberystwyth itself, so I stuck with mid-Wales more generally. The Levels was published by Parthian, who are based in Cardigan, and it’s set in a fictional mid-Wales town called Pont Rhith. Abby Hughes is a residential social worker from London, who has come to Pont Rhith to search for a man called Tegid Rhys, one of the homeless people who stayed at the hostel where Abby works. Tegid has been sending Abby postcards from Pont Rhith, but when he sends her his campervan keys in the wake of a horrific accident (a military drone has crashed into a caravan park, killing a young mother), Abby sets out to try and find Tegid. This is the set-up, but it doesn’t quite do justice to Pendry’s story. Pont Rhith and the surrounding area is as much a character here as Abby or any of the people she meets (military security consultant Ben Rickman, former soldier turned holiday-homer Owen, Welsh language bookshop owner Delyth, defiantly anti-English farmer Mr Ellis). It’s a town shadowed (suffocated?) by defunct mines and overlooked by the abandoned village of Bethania, where the MoD have plans that most of the locals don’t even care about. The Levels had me completely gripped – I strongly recommend this one.

Dead Funny, edited by Robin Ince and Johnny Mains (2014)

It only seemed fitting to follow up The Levels with the other book I bought at the same time in Aberystwyth. Robin Ince was a guest at last year’s Abertoir Festival, and so I bought Dead Funny while we were there. To be honest, I’ve been meaning to read this one for ages, and I’m not really sure why it’s taken me so long. Dead Funny is a collection of horror short stories written by comedians, including some of my favourite comedians, so it seems like one I should’ve read sooner. Now, the book is marketed with that word ‘funny’ – with a reasonable assumption being that comedians would write hilarious black comedy horror – but, actually, most of the stories aren’t actually funny. They’re really dark and twisted (some downright disturbing), which isn’t really a surprise if you know anything about stand-up comedians. I was expecting Reece Shearsmith’s story (‘Dog’) to be dark – and it really was – but Sara Pascoe (‘A Spider Remember’) and Al Murray (‘For Everyone’s Good’) took me by surprise. Their stories were both really effective horror tales, but not exactly laugh riots. Katy Brand’s ‘For Roger’ and Rufus Hound’s (very sly) ‘Fixed’ were also excellent, though, again, twisted little tales. In a way, it’s the actual comedy offerings – Stewart Lee’s ‘A View from a Hill’ and Tim Key’s ‘Halloween’ are both written as characteristic ‘bits’, rather than horror stories – that turn out to be the most disappointing, as they jar with the bleakness of the other tales.

Holt House by L.G. Vey (2018)

A couple of months ago, a friend on Twitter was talking about the Eden Book Society, and I was intrigued. This is a project from Dead Ink Books – the Eden Book Society was an enigmatic subscription-based horror publisher in the twentieth century, whose output has never been republished… until now! Dead Ink Books have secured the rights to publish the entire back catalogue of the Eden Book Society, and they’ve begun with a selection of novellas from 1972. If this all sounds too exciting to be true, it’s really up to you whether you believe or not. I’m just gutted that I missed this when it was first announced, and that I didn’t read any of the novellas until now. Holt House was the first of the Eden Book Society novellas that I read, and I really enjoyed it. It’s the story of Ray, a troubled young man who returns to his hometown and becomes fascinated by his former neighbours Mr and Mrs Latch. He hides out in Holtwood, watching the Latches and thinking back to a time in his childhood when he stayed with them overnight, and Mr Latch showed him something bad that they kept in the wardrobe. Ray’s story did not go in the direction I was expecting – Holt House is full of surprises, even when you think you’ve worked it all out. It’s also got a little bit of folk horror (not overdone) and a little bit of weird-fic about it. Really well-written and very enjoyable.

Judderman by D.A. Northwood (2018)

Having really enjoyed Holt House, I decided to just carry on with the Eden Book Society titles that are out so far (except Starve Acre… which has a whole story of its own that’ll have to wait for another time). The next one I read was Judderman. As I said, Holt House has a bit of a weird-fic feel to it (in places), and Judderman does too. However, while Holt House evokes more old-school weird fiction (Spirit of the Woods-type stuff in the tradition of Arthur Machen), Judderman belongs to the New Weird (and comparisons with China Mi√©ville are inevitable with this one). The story focuses on Danny and Gary Eider, a pair of brothers living in London in the early 1970s. There are a lot of ‘period’ details here – references to IRA bombs, racism, unemployment – which combine with urban legends and imagined monsters to create an unsettling cityscape, which the Eider brothers know as ‘London Incognita’. London Incognita’s ultimate bogeyman is the eponymous Judderman, an entity that hovers at the periphery, not quite visible, and who echoes through other folklore of the city. When Danny goes missing, Gary starts to fear that his ‘brother’s with the Judder’. In a fragmented, dreamlike narration, Gary picks around London Incognita, talking with the mud larks and antiquarian booksellers who know something of the city’s secrets. There are some fantastic bits in Judderman, though I felt the novella format constricted the narrative a bit. This one felt like it could have been expanded.

A Dedicated Friend by Shirley Longford (2018)

My next Eden Book Society novella was A Dedicated Friend by Shirley Longford (and, as with all the titles, you can either read the biography of the ‘author’ at the beginning of the book, or you can read the note at the end that explains this is a pseudonym of a contemporary British horror writer). Of the three I’ve read so far – all of which use period details to convincingly set their stories in 1972 – A Dedicated Friend is the one that makes the clearest attempt to tap into a particular anxiety of the 1970s and build on this to create a horror story. As the blurb tells us, organ donation was ‘in its infancy’ in 1972, and A Dedicated Friend features a woman, Daisy, who has agreed to donate a kidney to her aunt via new surgical techniques. Something is… off about the whole thing, though, and Daisy’s stay in hospital begins to feel like the stuff of nightmares (this is not a good story to read if you’ve got any phobias around surgery or medical procedures). I really enjoyed the tone and atmosphere with this one – even the most mundane events in the hospital (an omelette being served instead of pasta, a fellow patient borrowing a book) are infused with a wonderful sense of dread. The story itself is a wee bit predictable, and I could see where it was going almost as soon as the ‘dedicated friend’ made her first appearance. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the ride.

Plunge Hill: A Case Study by J.M. McVulpin (2020)

My Eden Book Society quartet finished with Plunge Hill: A Case Study, which is the most recently published in the series. It’s the longest one so far, though still technically a novella. The story begins with an introduction from J.M. McVulpin who, as the biography explains, was a psychiatrist who worked at several institutions, including the eponymous Plunge Hill. The hospital is now closing down (or, rather, being closed down), and McVulpin has decided to share a ‘case study’ – the tragic account of Bridget ‘Brix’ Shipley, one of the hospital’s medical secretaries who sadly (according to McVulpin) suffered from an undiagnosed delusional disorder. McVulpin didn’t know Brix during her time working at Plunge Hill, but he has acquired letters and other documents from her family and landlady that will allow her story to be told ‘in her own words’. However, McVulpin can’t help but interject on occasion in the form of footnotes of increasing length. What happened to Brix at Plunge Hill? And was it all really just in her head? What I really enjoyed about Plunge Hill is that it leaves some tantalizing questions unanswered. As a fan of unreliable narrators (which you may have spotted from some of my other reviews), this one was great fun. There are multiple narrators and narratives here, and not a single one can be relied on – I love that. The folk horror vibe that seeps into the story is also a joy. I think this might be my favourite of the series.

Deadhead by Shaun Hutson (1993)

Okay, this next one is definitely not my usual sort of thing. I should probably explain… last month I decided to treat myself and pay for a subscription to the Abominable Book Club, a horror book subscription service. Each month you receive a new horror title and a mystery book (plus some added extras and snacks, if you choose the full package). All subscribers receive the same new book, but the mystery book is different for everyone (it’s usually a vintage, aka second-hand, paperback), and for added mystery it comes wrapped up in brown paper and sealed with wax (and were those bloodstains? I probably shouldn’t ask). I got my first Abominable Book Club parcel this month, and the experience of receiving and opening the mystery book was a lot of fun. A lot more fun than reading the mystery book, if I’m honest, because Shaun Hutson’s writing is… not to my taste. This one is pretty typical of his 90s splatterpunk crime fiction. It’s got a private eye with terminal cancer, an abducted teenage daughter, child pornographers, snuff films and a drug-addled prostitute. It’s also got more descriptions of bullet wounds than I thought I’d ever read in one place, plus some pretty lurid sexual violence and shocks-for-shock’s-sake. And, I have to say, almost zero characterization (except, weirdly, the drug-addled prostitute). Why did I read it? I can’t really explain – I think I just got carried away by the cool packaging and the nice meringues that came with it.

Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver (2020)

was the B-movie, but the main feature of my Abominable Book Club parcel was Will Carver’s Hinton Hollow Death Trip. I’ve not read any of Carver’s other books (this one is the third title featuring his detective character, Sgt Pace). However, everything I read said that the books were a ‘loose series’, and that they can all be read as standalones. This is definitely the case with Hinton Hollow Death Trip. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything by not having read the earlier books, though I got the impression I might have picked up on a few details if I had. Hinton Hollow Death Trip is a hard book to describe. It tells the story of five days in the life of a little village in Berkshire – and it’s narrated by Evil. Evil’s come to Hinton Hollow, and its visit begins with the death of a child (well, it doesn’t quite begin there, but I’m not going to spoil anything!). This is an incredibly clever book, and such a compelling way to construct a crime story. There’s an awful lot to be impressed by here. Sadly, though, I suspect the author’s own biases have seeped in a little more than they should: I struggled a bit with seeing Evil condemning overweight people (who all eat like cartoon characters) and tired mothers as equally bad as murderers and animal abusers. It’s a shame, as this is a great book, but it is tinged with a bit of misogyny.

A Dark Matter by Doug Johnstone (2019)

Me and my mum got tickets for a (virtual) event at Portobello Bookshop, with readings from Val McDermid and Doug Johnstone. The event will mark the release of new books by both authors, including the second book in Johnstone’s Skelfs series. We thought it would probably be a good idea to read the first book in the series first! Johnstone’s series is about the Skelf family, three generations of women who run the family business(es): funeral directors with a side line in private investigation. A Dark Matter begins with the unconventional funeral of patriarch Jim Skelf, and the decision taken by his widow (Dorothy), daughter (Jenny) and granddaughter (Hannah) to continue his work, assisted by Indy, Hannah’s girlfriend and trainee funeral director, and Archie, Jim’s assistant who suffers from Cotard’s syndrome. It’s an original set-up for a crime series, and A Dark Matter sees the women investigate the disappearance of one of Hannah’s university friends and a potential case of adultery. Dorothy also decides to investigate some of the secrets that didn’t quite go to the grave with Jim. I enjoyed the characters – though Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah aren’t exactly happy people – and some of the investigation storylines had a charm and intrigue to them. It’s all a bit grim – don’t be mislead by the blurbs on the cover claiming this is a ‘funny’ book – and it goes to some pretty dark (and almost implausible?) places. But we both enjoyed it, and we’re looking forward to hearing from the author.