WHEN Doug Johnstone did a six-month stint as writer-in-residence with a funeral director a few years back, everyone told him he would get a good book out of it.

At the time, the Edinburgh-based author disagreed. "The whole point of funeral directing is to defuse conflict and tension at an incredibly stressful time," he says. "Whereas crime fiction thrives on conflict and tension."

In the end, Johnstone did write about his experiences. The seed that was planted has since germinated into a three-book series. The first novel, A Dark Matter, was published in January and has been optioned as a TV drama, while the second, The Big Chill, is due out in print this week.

When we speak on a June afternoon, Johnstone, 50, is wandering from room to room in his Edinburgh home. All the windows are open on account of the warm weather and he's trying to find a quiet spot away from the hubbub drifting from the street outside.

Later, he will set off to navigate the supermarket to buy something for his family's tea but, for the next little while, Johnstone is conjuring images of a different side of the Scottish capital – less blissful domesticity and more domestic noir – as we talk about his latest books.

The series centres on three generations of women – Jenny Skelf, her mother Dorothy and daughter Hannah – who run a family funeral director business with a sideline as private investigators on the leafy south side of Edinburgh (think where Morningside meets Bruntsfield and The Meadows).

"These things stew in your brain for a long time," says Johnstone. "For years, I've had this character and name: Jenny Skelf. I had an idea to write a PI novel about someone who doesn't know how to be a PI. I was inspired by The Rockford Files or something like that from my childhood."

Death? Tick. Mystery? Tick. Darkly comic undertones, twisting plotlines and deftly drawn observation about the foibles of the human condition? Tick, tick and tick. If that doesn't hook you in, then let's try these scene-setting openers for size.

When we first meet the Skelfs in A Dark Matter, they are carrying out the final wishes of family patriarch Jim by burning his corpse on an illegal funeral pyre in the back garden. The flames lick hungrily as a smell of charred flesh, reminiscent of a Sunday roast dinner, permeates the air.

The Big Chill is no slouch when it comes to memorable introductions either, commencing with a high-speed police chase through a cemetery that ends up with a car crashing into an open grave as shocked mourners leap for safety.

What drew Johnstone to write a female-led series? "I don't know if there is a simple answer to that," he muses. "These are my 11th and 12th novels. All the books before are about half and half with the central characters male or female and different ages – young adults, middle-aged and elderly.

"I always like to do something different from what I've have done before, partly for my own sanity and partly to explore new things.

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"As I developed this idea and these characters, I thought it would be interesting to look at the relationship between mothers and daughters, which is a complex one. You have the different generational outlooks on life. It is endlessly rich material."

I'm curious as to whether the strong women on the page are drawn from anyone in his own life. "Well, all women are strong," he interjects. "Without getting on a psychiatrist's couch, I don't particularly have a life full of matriarchal figures or anything like that.

"These are strong women, but they are also deeply flawed and the way they rely on each other, even though that sometimes is not easy, is interesting to look at."

Another striking thing is the way that Edinburgh leaps off the pages, almost like another character. "I think about half my books have been set there – maybe slightly more," says Johnstone. "I have lived in Edinburgh for more than 30 years, which is the vast majority of my life.

"I shied away from it to begin with because Edinburgh is a very familiar city literary-wise from Walter Scott all the way through to Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and Irvine Welsh. After a while, though, I realised my experience of Edinburgh is just as valid as anybody else's.

"I have always tended to write about the lesser-known parts of the city. My previous novel to these two, Breakers, was set almost entirely in Craigmillar and Niddrie. With the Skelf books, you can explore all of the city – they cut across the socioeconomic divide.

"With their work they can be in Craigentinny and Duddingston one minute, then in Morningside the next, within the blink of an eye. That is my experience of travelling around the city. It is such a small area, you are cheek-by-jowl between the millionaires and the deprived. That makes it an interesting place to write about."

Johnstone has finished the first draft of the third book in the Skelfs series. Once that is complete, his next project will be a sci-fi novel. Talking in the midst of lockdown, the obvious question is how our altered lives – from social distancing to wearing masks – may be factoring into his writing.

Does coronavirus mean that Johnstone can't have characters kissing, hugging or touching? Are cases being solved from a safe two-metre distance? Has it affected how the Skelfs go about their everyday job as funeral directors? In short, does he write in the "old normal" or "new normal"?

"So far, I have kept it in the 'old normal'. The third book is still going to be set before [the coronavirus pandemic]. They are contemporary but could be a year or two ago. Trying to take Covid-19 into account when you are still in the middle of Covid-19 is a recipe for disaster for writers."


Johnstone makes a good point. After all, fiction is meant to be escapism. "No-one knows where we are going to be in six months' time or a year or whatever," he agrees. "I hate the phrase the 'new normal' – I can't stand it.

"We don't know what things are going to be like and trying to second-guess that is a hiding to nothing. That's maybe another reason why I want to write a sci-fi novel next because I won't be forced to deal with it.

"I think in a few years' time, if you are writing a contemporary crime novel, then you will have to account for the fact it did happen. But writing something in the middle of it is never going to play well. You need to wait for the dust to settle a little bit."

It has meant adjusting in other ways too. There will be no publicity tour in the usual sense for The Big Chill (although Johnstone and fellow author Val McDermid will be doing a joint virtual launch for their respective books at The Portobello Bookshop in Edinburgh this week).

The duo are members of the band Fun Lovin' Crime Writers, alongside Mark Billingham, Chris Brookmyre, Stuart Neville and Luca Veste. Johnstone is the drummer and backing vocalist (he can also play guitar and keyboards).

The band – who performed at Glastonbury last year – were due to play the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh in April as part of a mini tour, but the gig was cancelled due to lockdown.

In recent years, the Fun Lovin' Crime Writers have been a popular addition to the line-ups at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Bloody Scotland International Crime Writing Festival in Stirling. Mooted plans for this year had to be shelved due to the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions.

Johnstone – who is on the longlist for the McIlvanney Prize for the Scottish Crime Book of the Year – will be part of next month's Bloody Scotland online programme. While delighted to be among the virtual line-up, he laments missing the camaraderie of the usual book festival circuit.

"That has been a real bummer," he says. "It has made me realise just how much of my social life is book festivals, book events and the band. Basically, the only time I ever met anyone or went out was when I was doing stuff with other writers, either playing music or doing book events.

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"Having all that gone has been very strange. I'm naturally a little bit of a hermit anyway. I work from home and have done for 20 years. But it has been weird. I've actually got quite a lot of writing done in between home-schooling my kids and all the rest of it."

When the world retreated behind closed doors in March, Johnstone had already been in his own cocoon for some weeks. "I was locked down early because I had a stroke," he says. "I'm fine now. I feel fit as anything and getting lots of exercise. I have been generally pretty lucky.

"For two or three weeks before lockdown started, I was at home doing nothing because I couldn't do anything and was recuperating. That was quite useful in retrospect for just resetting myself and focusing on that one day at a time thing that everyone had to face in lockdown.

"I was a few weeks ahead of the curve. I was concentrating on 'what can I eat for lunch?' or 'when can I have a nap?' and whether I could stand to watch an old episode of something on television.

"That was weirdly useful in a way and I got back to writing within about a month. I started very gently. I am now writing and getting exercise which is the most a writer can ask for in the current situation."

His stroke came out of the blue. "I had a moderate stroke – a blood clot in the cerebellum, which is the base of your brain, almost at the bottom of your skull. Which is quite a rare stroke, apparently. I think only two per cent of strokes are that.

"I didn't have any risk factors, so there was no obvious reason. The consultant at the hospital basically shrugged and said, 'Look, sometimes these things just happen.' Since then I have had other tests and that's still ongoing.

"I'm now on medication for life to lower my cholesterol and thin my blood to try to prevent it happening again. But, apart from that, it is just trying to get back to business as normal."

He is sanguine when asked how it has affected his outlook on life. "It is a familiar idea, almost a cliche, that people who have life-threatening things such as heart attacks and strokes, suddenly get a new taste for life and treasure every moment.

"That is true to an extent. You do think: 'It could have been much worse, I might not be here'. But, at the same time, I don't think it pays to make massive changes to your life. I mean, my lifestyle was fine before. I'm just getting on with things.

"I know there can often be periods of depression or mental health issues after something like this but, touch wood, I seem to have been fine. If you dwell on it, that can be a wormhole of darkness. That hasn't been a problem with me. I have a good support network of friends and family."


Home these days is Edinburgh (Portobello and Duddingston are his stomping grounds) where he lives with his wife Tricia, a charity fundraiser, and their children, aged 11 and 15.

The youngest of three, Johnstone was born in Irvine and grew up in Arbroath, where his father was a headmaster and his mother a part-time supply teacher. "I was born in Irvine Central almost at the same day and place as Nicola Sturgeon," he says. "We were born two or three days apart."

Like the First Minister, Johnstone celebrated the big 5-0 last month. "I spent the day with my family, we went out for a walk and ended up going for food at a pub down the road," he says, when we catch up again in early August. "I had my first pint in a pub since February.

"A couple of days later my mum, dad and sister came round. We were out in the garden and ate cake. Then a few days after that a couple of friends came round and we did the same thing again. All socially distant and in the garden. We were lucky because the weather was nice.

"Three small gatherings. That suited me. My wife was saying: 'I'm sorry we didn't do anything big' but honestly, it was perfect. I didn't want any fuss."

Johnstone has a degree in physics and a PhD in nuclear physics. Before embarking on his literary career, he worked as an engineer using mathematical modelling to help design radar and missile guidance systems for aircraft.

He left that world behind to become a music journalist. Then began writing books. His debut novel, Tombstoning, was published in 2006. Johnstone admits it took a few more books under his belt before he truly considered himself a writer.

With 12 books now, that's in little doubt. A Dark Matter has been optioned as a TV series by Glasgow-based production company Blazing Griffin, who made the 2017 zombie musical film Anna And The Apocalypse.

"That came about through Chris Brookmyre, who has long been a supporter of mine. I sent him a very early copy of A Dark Matter and he passed it on to the head of development Gillian Christie who loved it. It is exciting it has been optioned.

"It is still a long way to seeing it on TV, but it is a first step towards that and it strikes me, without blowing my own trumpet too much, that of all my books, these are the ones that would probably lend themselves to television the best.

"You have got three strong women characters, ideally made for three different generations of actors. I can see it being good television, whether or not it will ever end up as television, we will have to wait and see."

The Big Chill by Doug Johnstone is published by Orenda on Thursday, priced £8.99, and available in e-book now. The online launch is at The Portobello Bookshop, 6pm, on Thursday. To buy tickets, visit theportobellobookshop.com. The author is part of the online programme for Bloody Scotland International Crime Writing Festival from September 18-20. Visit bloodyscotland.com