As most of you know I’m not one to get all worked up about bestselling authors, choosing instead to let the hype die down for at least a decade or two (okay, maybe a generation or two might be more accurate) and then see if the prose holds up once the buzz dies down. But there are a few exceptions to that cynical personal rule, and Kate Atkinson is one of them.
I stumbled upon Atkinson’s first book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, quite some time ago. It was a random shelf pull, absolutely serendipitous – for a number of years I had a long commute several times weekly to take my daughter to her faraway dance school and a goodly number of hours to kill while she was in session, so the public library was my refuge and source of much scope for readerly experimentation – and it (the book) was so brilliantly out there that I came back to the real world most reluctantly. That woman can write, I said to myself. That’s how it’s done. Give me more of that, please.
After Museum I of course went back to the A shelf and pulled everything else by Atkinson that I could find, which was not all that much – Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird – and though they were readable, they felt just slightly too raggedly experimental in comparison to the first book. Third trip back, and I struck a vein of gold: a fairly traditionally structured suspense-murder mystery featuring (eventually, after a certain amount of build up) a retired police officer turned private investigator, one Jackson Brodie.
Case Histories hooked me, and One Good Turn reeled me in, leaving me chortling with glee at my good fortune in finding such a wickedly clever writer, and When Will There be Good News? nicked me where it hurt and the left me rejoicing with its several happily likeable strong females, and Started Early, Took My Dog had me poignantly amused and supremely satisfied and at the same time yearning for something, anything, more.
Then, game over on the novel front, until Life After Life – very much not featuring Jackson Brodie, but more in line with that mind-twisting first story – burst upon the 2013 book scene. (I have a copy, but I haven’t yet read it. Just waiting for the right time. This year’s Christmas break, perhaps? It’s mellowed for two years, and the buzz is quieter, as the companion book is now out.)
Kate Atkinson has said that her four Jackson Brodie novels may well have to stand alone – she’s written herself out in that area, at least for now. And I get that, and I am all for it, because heaven forbid such a stellar narrative deteriorate into an Elizabeth George-style endless saga that piles tragedy upon plot twist upon ever-more-bizarre murder until one forgets just how good the first books really were.
But I’ve just re-read all four of the Brodie novels, and all I can think of is that a really awesome Christmas treat in, say, 2016 or 2017 would be a fifth installment. Just sending that out into cyberspace. Kate Atkinson, did you catch that?
I will go ahead and list all the vital statistics as I usually do for books I talk about here. But I won’t get into details about plot and style and all that stuff. If you haven’t already read these, it might be fun to go into them cold, with no expectations. Definitely read them in order if you can, though it’s not absolutely essential – Kate Atkinson takes pity on the reader and does sketch in the back story just a bit, for those coming in part way through. (And if you’re really curious, the internet is jam-packed with analysis and reviews. Anything I say here will merely be a shadowy repeat of what others have already fluently said.)
The author’s website does have some excerpts, for firsthand exploration before committing.
Such good books. Such a good writer. Such a twisty, clever mind, and her coincidences click into place most satisfyingly, as we have cheerfully suspended disbelief early on. And very funny, too, though concerned throughout with the dismal awfulnesses of people to each other. But no wallowing.
Good stuff. Good, good, good.
Okay, I wasn’t going to say anything about the plots, but then I checked out the Kirkus reviews and I liked the first one quite well so I changed my mind and decided to crib from the pros. No true spoilers included, but you might wish to avoid going any further if you like your sagas unsullied by prior knowledge of details.
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson ~2004. This edition: Doubleday, 2004. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-385-60799-7. 304 pages.
My rating: 10/10
Just looked up the Kirkus review from 2004, and by golly, the reviewer echoes my thoughts precisely, including my bemusement at Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird.
After two self-indulgent detours, Atkinson proves that her Whitbread Award–winning debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1996), was no fluke with a novel about three interconnected mysteries.
They seem totally unrelated at first to private detective Jackson Brodie, hired by separate individuals in Cambridge, England, to investigate long-dormant cases. Three-year-old Olivia Land disappeared from a tent in her family’s backyard in 1970; 34 years later, her sisters Amelia and Julia discover Olivia’s stuffed toy in their recently deceased father’s study and want Jackson to find out what he had to do with the disappearance. Theo Wyre’s beloved 18-year-old daughter Laura was murdered by a knife-wielding lunatic in 1994, and he too hires Jackson to crack this unsolved murder. Michelle was also 18 when she went to jail in 1979 for killing her husband with an ax while their infant daughter wailed in the playpen; she vanished after serving her time, but Shirley Morrison asks Jackson to find, not her sister Michelle, but the niece she promised to raise, then was forced to hand over to grandparents. The detective, whose bitter ex-wife uses Jackson’s profound love for their eight-year-old daughter to torture him, finds all these stories of dead and/or missing girls extremely unsettling; we learn toward the end why the subject of young women in peril is particularly painful for him. Atkinson has always been a gripping storyteller, and her complicated narrative crackles with the earthy humor, vibrant characterizations, and shrewd social observations that enlivened her first novel but were largely swamped by postmodern game-playing in Human Croquet (1997) and Emotionally Weird (2000). Here, she crafts a compulsive page-turner that looks deep into the heart of sadness, cruelty, and loss, yet ultimately grants her charming p.i. (and most of the other appealingly offbeat characters, including one killer) a chance at happiness and some measure of reconciliation with the past.
Wonderful fun and very moving: it’s a pleasure to see this talented writer back on form.
One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson ~ 2006. This edition: Anchor Canada, 2007. Softcover. ISBN: 9978-0-385-66261-1. 386 pages.
My rating: 10/10
Kirkus, again. Again, the reviewer mostly nailed it. Disregard the snarky “the author isn’t stretching herself” bit; it’s a grand book, says me. And I cried real tears at one point – a very rare response for me so noteworthy.
A murder mystery with comic overtones from the award-winning British storyteller.
Resurrecting Jackson Brodie, the private eye from Case Histories (2004), Atkinson confects a soft-hearted thriller, short on menace but long on empathy and introspection. Her intricate, none-too-serious plot is triggered by an act of road rage witnessed by assorted characters in Edinburgh during the annual summer arts festival. Mysterious possible hit man “Paul Bradley” is rear-ended by Terence Smith, a hard-man with a baseball bat who is stopped from beating Bradley to a pulp by mild-mannered crime-novelist Martin Canning, who throws his laptop at him. Other onlookers include Brodie, accompanied by his actress girlfriend, Julia; Gloria Hatter, wife of fraudulent property-developer Graham Hatter (of Hatter Homes, Real Homes for Real People); and schoolboy Archie, son of single-mother policewoman Louise Monroe, who lives in a crumbling Hatter home. Labyrinthine, occasionally farcical plot developments repeatedly link the group. Rounding out the criminal side of the story are at least two dead bodies; an omniscient Russian dominatrix who even to Gloria seems “like a comedy Russian”; and a mysterious agency named Favors. Brodie’s waning romance with Julia and waxing one with Louise; a dying cat; children; dead parents and much more are lengthily considered as Atkinson steps away from the action to delve into her characters’ personalities. Clearly, this is where her heart lies, not so much with the story’s riddles, the answers to which usually lie with Graham Hatter, who has been felled by a heart attack and remains unconscious for most of the story. There are running jokes and an enjoyable parade of neat resolutions, but no satisfying dénouement. Everything is connected, often amusingly or cleverly, but nothing matters much.
A technically adept and pleasurable tale, but Atkinson isn’t stretching herself.
When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson ~ 2008. This edition: Doubleday, 2008. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-385-66682-4. 348 pages.
My rating: 10/10
Kirkus, Take Three. I strongly suspect that the reviewer phoned this one in, but it does sum up the key points of the action.
A third appearance for former police investigator and private detective Jackson Brodie in this psychologically astute thriller from Atkinson (One Good Turn, 2006, etc.).
In the emotional opening, six-year-old Joanna witnesses the brutal killing of her mother and siblings by a knife-wielding madman in the British countryside. Thirty years later, Joanna, now a doctor in Edinburgh, has become a mother herself. Her baby’s nanny is 16-year-old Reggie. To Reggie, whose own mother recently died in a freak accident, Joanna and her baby represent an ideal family (Joanna’s husband, a struggling businessman, seems only a vaguely irritating irrelevance to fatherless Reggie). When prickly, self-loathing policewoman Louise Monroe comes to call on lovely, warm-hearted Joanna, watchful Reggie (think Ellen Page from Juno with a Scottish brogue) is struck by the similarities between the two well-dressed professional women. Actually Louise has come to warn Joanna that her family’s murderer is being released from prison. Louise chooses not to mention her other reason for visiting, a suspicion that Joanna’s husband torched one of his failing businesses for the insurance. Jackson’s connection to the others is revealed gradually: Jackson and Louise were once almost lovers although they since married others; as a youth Jackson joined the search party that found Joanna hiding in a field following the murders. Rattled after visiting a child he suspects he fathered despite the mother’s denials, Jackson mistakenly takes the train to Edinburgh instead of London. When the train crashes near the house where Reggie happens to be watching TV, she gives him CPR. Soon afterward, Joanna’s husband tells Reggie that Joanna has gone away unexpectedly. Suspecting foul play, Reggie involves Louise and Jackson in individual searches for the missing woman and baby. While Louise and Jackson face truths about themselves and their relationships, Joanna’s survival instincts are once more put to the ultimate test.
Like the most riveting BBC mystery, in which understated, deadpan intelligence illuminates characters’ inner lives within a convoluted plot.
Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson ~ 2010. This edition: Doubleday, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-385-67134-7. 350 pages.
My rating: 10/10
Kirkus, with errors. Another phone-in, is my verdict on the reviewer. The wee child has actually been left with his murdered mother’s body for a gruesome three weeks, and the questing adoptee Hope is from New Zealand. Otherwise the précis is more or less accurate.
British private detective Jackson Brodie, star of three previous Atkinson novels (When Will There Be Good News, 2008, etc.), finds himself embroiled in a case which shows that defining crime is sometimes as difficult as solving it.
Tracy Waterhouse, who is middle-aged, overweight and lonely, heads security for a mall in Leeds. Retired from the local police force, she remains haunted by one of her earliest cases, when she and her partner found a little boy abandoned in the apartment where his mother had been murdered days earlier. Although the murderer was supposedly found (but died before being brought to trial), Tracy never learned what happened to the child with whom she’d formed a quick bond. When Tracy sees a known prostitute/lowlife mistreating her child at the mall, she impulsively offers to buy the child, and the woman takes the money and runs. Tracy knows she has technically broken the law and even suspects the woman might not be the real mother, but her protective instinct and growing love for the little girl named Courtney overrides common sense; she begins arrangements to flee Leeds and start a new life with the child. Meanwhile, Jackson has come to Leeds on his own case. Raised and living in Australia, adoptee Hope McMaster wants information about her birth parents, who supposedly died in a car crash in Leeds 30 years ago. As he pursues the case, Jackson considers his relationships with his own kids—a troublesome teenage daughter from his first marriage and a young son whom DNA tests have recently proved he fathered with a former lover. Jackson’s search and Tracy’s quest intertwine as Jackson’s questions make the Leeds police force increasingly nervous. It becomes clear that the 1975 murder case Tracy worked on is far from solved and has had lasting repercussions.
The sleuthing is less important than Atkinson’s fascinating take on the philosophic and emotional dimensions of her characters’ lives.