She has never been a straightforward crime writer, and in Big Sky, as in the four previous Brodie novels, she gives the impression of winking at the reader, making us complicit in the recognition of cliches and expectations. The playful literary tricks that she made overt in Life After Life and A God in Ruins – the deliberate flagging up of her fictional constructs – have always been more subtly present in the Brodie novels. There are frequent references to crime fiction and its tropes; characters often observe that they are engaged in something that might happen in a novel or a film, often with the wry acknowledgment that life isn’t really like that... Big Sky is laced with Atkinson’s sharp, dry humour, and one of the joys of the Brodie novels has always been that they are so funny, even when the themes are as dark as child abuse and sex trafficking.
It’s tempting to think of Atkinson as a writer of maximalist, conventionally satisfying, carefully plotted fiction that is innovative only in stretching the usual elements of psychological realism to their technical limits. But one of the most exciting things about her books is the way they renege on their own promises. Atkinson’s illusions are performed out in the open: you think you’ve mastered their complexities, but then the chaos of human relations takes over, and people defy their own natures, or the rules of their own stories. As Hilary Mantel put it in the LRB some years ago, reviewing Behind the Scenes at the Museum, ‘just when you think you have begun to understand how her book works, she will undeceive you.’
Many writers these days view working- class people either as victims to be saved or as feral beasts, so it’s refreshing to see them portrayed as wonderfully average human beings, driven by combinations of love and hate, desire, greed, compassion and so on. Every person here is written from the inside out, without any signs of prejudice. Atkinson saves judgment for when it matters: to bring wrongdoers to justice. Sad bastards, low-life heroes, pervy types: the streets of the seaside town are well-populated. A fantastic mosaic of a book.
In the Golden Age of crime fiction between the wars, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham wrote about the process by which Wimsey, Alleyn and Campion discovered that to love a woman meant giving her the freedom to live her life as she chose. If they were writing today, their heroes might be men like Jackson, who acknowledge the never-ending war waged against women by men and devote their lives to redressing the balance.
On the other hand, Atkinson is writing in the messy 21st century, and there is something not entirely healthy about Jackson’s compulsion to be a white knight, which derives ultimately from the unsolved rape and murder of his sister when he was a young man. His single-minded devotion to his work has contributed to the breakdown of his marriage to his highly desirable actress wife Julia, and widened the gulf that exists between him and his two children. All this makes the Brodie books sound impossibly grim, but by some alchemy Atkinson makes her sad stories supremely funny, even uplifting.
Told in Atkinson’s typically wry prose, it is Dickensian in sweep, utterly riveting and has a wonderful ending: quite magnificent.
It’s a credit to Atkinson’s dexterity that despite these clashes of tone and register the novel manages to hang together, even though the subject matter – child sexual abuse, human trafficking – and the essentially comic mechanisms of the plot, its coincidences and confrontations, seem to be at odds. How seriously are we to take it all? Atkinson artfully avoids supplying or implying an answer.
Jackson is not a big reader but he would undoubtedly enjoy Big Sky. “He liked his crime fiction to be cheerfully unrealistic.” And he likes trouble to be resolved in “a righteous compromise”, wherein “bad people were punished, people with good intentions weren’t crucified”. Fairy stories are often mentioned in this novel of good and evil. Atkinson knows her tale would not satisfy lovers of Scandi noir, Poirot, or Taggart (all of which are mentioned), but this is not to say that her characters lack depth. Sinister Tommy is married to Crystal, who is nothing if not three-dimensional, despite her “synthetic” appearance.
Atkinson’s nimble and endearing skill across all her fiction — from her dazzlingly playful debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, to her Costa-winning wartime novel Life After Life — is to take the determinedly domestic, find the wry, sometimes waspish humour in it, and yet reveal something profoundly humane. She set up Brodie in Case Histories, his first appearance, as a man who, despite a horribly bruised past, held on to the belief “that his job was to help people be good rather than punish them for being bad”. It’s this moral bedrock that underlies all his misadventures, including Big Sky, in which his enduring preoccupation with lost girls flows into the ghastly case of abuse and sex trafficking that slowly emerges... deft misdirection, cheeky literary references and Brodie’s flailing attempts to offer sympathy by quoting country-and-western lyrics are constantly entertaining. You finish Big Sky feeling battered — but thoroughly cheered up.
Atkinson is on surer territory with new characters – she has an almost cruel ability to capture a person in a line or two. On Vince’s Bonsai-growing wife Wendy, for instance: “She shopped from the Boden catalogue and was proud of having grown a horrible stunted little tree.” But you also come to really know and love (or loathe) many of them. While this focus on character means Big Sky can lack the relentless propulsion associated with crime writing, getting to know a plethora of her tenacious, memorable characters seems like a fair trade, especially as they gently offer hope that, in the end, good will out.
If you like your beach reads to include a good measure of infidelity, murder suspects and missing cats — who doesn’t? — Atkinson’s new mystery hits all the right notes. Her existential detective, Jackson Brodie, is back after a nine-year hiatus, and the lost and bereaved are flocking to him.
Ex-copper Jackson Brodie gets his fifth outing in the new novel by the reliably brilliant Atkinson - this time working as a private investigator in a small seaside town that's a long way from being sleepy.
Jackson Brodie is back, and how we've missed him! Our favourite accident-prone dectective has relocated to a quiet seaside village, but life doesn't remain quiet for long after he encounters a desperate man on a crumbling cliff.
As with her other, standalone novels, Atkinson’s crime series walks the fine line between cheerfully unrealistic and macabre. Beneath the tightrope on which her plots are strung lies an overstuffed mattress, as if to cushion a fall. This safety net is filled with the back stories of a multitudinous cast, authorial asides, extraneous facts and anecdotes so unrelenting in their delivery it is sometimes difficult to detect where it’s all heading.... Atkinson’s instinct to lighten the mood at every opportunity makes for an uneven atmosphere in terms of crime drama, yet she manages, just about, to control the mood sufficiently to allow sardonicism, poignancy and appalling acts against humanity to share the same page. Stylistically, her conversational tone is winning, less so her parenthetical tic, which needs reining in.
I could be accused of a lack of imagination for choosing the same author for the Book of the Month slot a mere nine months after her previous novel, Transcription, occupied the top spot, but this is Kate Atkinson, and to be honest I'd probably pick her writing every day of the week. This is her first novel to feature Jackson Brodie in nine years, and the fifth overall. The series began with Case Histories (2004), followed by One Good Turn (2006), When Will There Be Good News? (2008) and Started Early, Took My Dog (2010).