NY: Little, Brown, 2008.
Atkinson is one of the very best authors presently working in the English (or Scots) language, and also one of the most overlooked by the general public, even though she’s won a Whitbread. Of her six previous novels, the two most recent, Case Histories and One Good Turn, are her best, and that’s saying something. And this one is even better.Jackson Brodie, the hero (or at least the protagonist) of both of them, and now of this one, is an ex-Yorkshireman, ex-military policeman, ex-civilian cop, and now ex-private detective living quietly (or as quietly as he can manage) on an inheritance of appalling size that he knows he didn’t deserve. He’s been married twice, with a long-term girlfriend in-between, and has a daughter he’s sure of and a son he isn’t. Having been snooping about in the Midlands and inadvertently boarding a train headed in the wrong direction, he finds himself returning not to London but to his own northern past, where he gets dumped into the middle of several developing mysteries involving the disappeared Dr. Hunter (lone survivor of a small mass murder three decades ago), the present-day trials and tribulations of Reggie Chase (sixteen-year-old self-taught classicist and recent orphan), Neil Hunter (ne’er-do-well entrepreneur from Glasgow and possible insurance arsonist), and DCI Louise Monroe (unhappily wed to a terrific husband), whose lot it is to try to sort out all the tangled skeins. There are several themes laced throughout the multiply intertwined narratives, especially violent and/or dreary death — by murder (lots of those, over lots of years), by railway carnage (same root as carnival), by bizarre misadventure (foreign swimming pools), and by ordinary inability (throwing one’s car over an embankment). Many of these events are also recursive, with strangers who have acquaintances in common ending up with each other’s wallets and lives. All the characters, including the single-scene walk-ons, are so clearly drawn you can hear their accents, thanks to the author’s extraordinary command of dialogue and description. The omnipresent humor (not all of it the gallows variety) is very British and very funny. And the convoluted mystery(s) is well constructed, too. But this isn’t really a mystery novel. It’s a fascinating and multifaceted view of the lives of a group of intriguing and mostly (usually) sympathetic people caught up in the minutiae of life and trying their best to survive. And I find it amazing that each of the three novels in this set (so far) is even better than its predecessor. Brilliant work.