Read with caution: Cleaning companies may never be the same again!
I’ve come to Kate Atkinson late in her career: I can recall surprisingly vividly my mother’s water damaged, crinkly paper copy of Behind the Scenes at the Museum teetering on the side of the bath – an avocado kitsch bath – from my childhood and that possibly put me off the name! So she exploded into my reading consciousness with the sublime Life after Life and I had no idea that she also had this Jackson Brodie Detective series until I picked up Case Histories some years ago. And with the release of Big Sky, I felt it time to return to Brodie again.
The repercussions of Case Histories continue to inform the storytelling: the inheritance he received allowed him to retire to a villa in France and take holidays in Venice and invest in his girlfriend’s theatre production to be staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And it is for that reason that Brodie happens to be on site to witness – amongst many other witnesses – a vicious road rage incident between Paul Bradley and the (at the time unnamed) Terence Smith. And from that one incident, a multitude of other characters’ stories emerge, blossoming into an ensemble: Martin Canning, writer of cosy detective novels, Gloria Hatter, wife to millionaire property developer Graham; Archie and Hamish, two schoolboy amateur shoplifters; Louise Munroe, newly minted Detective Inspector and Archie’s mother.
As with Case Histories, each character explores their own background and history with us, sliding from the present day into internal thoughts and memories flowing between each other with very natural feeling links. The road rage incident led Martin, who threw his laptop at Terence Smith to protect Bradley, to recall his “Society of Authors’ trip around St. Leonard’s Police Station”, which led him to ruminate on the word giggle:
“The word “giggle,” it struck Martin, was an almost exclusively female verb. Women giggle, men simply laugh. Martin worried that he was a bit of a giggler himself.
And from there we spiral further and further from the streets of Edinburgh: we meet the protagonist of his novels, Nina Riley, and his editors, his life as a rather disenchanted religious studies teacher, his time on a creative writing course, a childhood experience at a German funfair. And all this occurs in the moments after Terence Smith is knocked to the ground by the laptop case and recovers his feet and escapes.
I suspect this interiority and monologue would put of many readers but for me I loved them: Atkinson controlled the feed of information very carefully – and there were secrets to reveal in due course – to produce a cast of characters with surprising depth and roundedness: the characters in the novel were more fully formed than most. And there were no golden heroes here: all the characters were flawed and often difficult to like – and one casually dropped anecdote about Jackson and his relationship with Julia was particularly difficult to swallow – but real. And if our interior monologues and memories were laid bare, how many of us would escape unsullied? And the relationships between the characters are so honestly and credibly portrayed: Jackson’s long term relationship with Julia, tense occasionally awkward, full of sex and a little insecurity, but with all the comforts of familiarity; Louise’s relationship with her mother, her dead and cremated mother, and her son; the building romance between Jackson and Louise – is that going to be developed in the next book(s)?
For me, these monologues felt like a natural stream of consciousness: logical if sometimes unexpected, and never so long that I lost track of or came out of the actual narrative. And the narrative is beautifully constructed! Especially as further violence blooms, and actually rather startlingly violent death occur, and bodies are discovered. We come across Russian dominatrices; the suspicious and amorphous agency Favors (“We do what you want us to do!”) which could be a cleaning agency, an escort agency, people smugglers or a group of assassins; poorly-built houses and fraudulent businessmen. And the repeated motif of the matryoshka doll is an obvious metaphor: a single incident that cracks open a multitude of stories – like dolls nestled inside each other – which by the end of the novel all come together again.
There is some heavy reliance on coincidence in the ability to do this, but it comes across as a conscious and knowing use of it, almost absurd in an absurdist sense, and never the reliance on coincidence as a cheap escape route from a plot hole. And even the characters recognise the absurdity of their co-incidence:
The wheels in his brain seemed to grind to a halt, apparently from the effort of trying to work out why all the people he wanted to kill were in the same room together. Then he gave up on the whole thinking thing…
I also loved Martin as a character: the single incident when he threw that laptop bag at Terence Smith led him to a series of mistaken assumptions about him and Paul Bradley which led to him being taken to hospital with him, sharing an hotel room with him and eventually losing all grip on his quietly secluded life! He is so withdrawn, polite, appropriate – so terribly British perhaps – that each step seems reasonable enough, but the conclusion spirals him into absurdity.
There is a light humour running through the whole novel which was a relief and set off the violence beautifully: the perpetual misconception that Martin had been in holy orders peppers the novel, but the humour is mainly in Atkinson’s dry and laconic narrative, undercutting her characters. Take the example of when the comic Richard Mott is approached by a violent Terence Smith
The guy was huge, his nose swollen and ugly, as if he’d been in a fight. He was very nasal, English, a bit of something flat, Nottingham, Lancaster, perhaps. Richard Mott imagined himself giving a description afterward to the police, imagined himself saying, “I know accents, I’m in the business.”He had tried his hand at acting in the early nineties, there’d been a bit part on The Bill where he’d played a guy (a comic so he wouldn’t have to “stretch” himself) with a crazy female stalker who wanted to kill him, and one of the Sun Hill detectives counseled his character that to be a survivor you had to think like a survivor, you had to picture yourself in the future, after the attack. This advice came back to him now, but then he remembered that his character had actually been killed by the crazy stalker.
Susan Hill, with her Simon Serrailler series, has declared her intention to take the crime genre out of genre fiction and make it literary – whatever that means – and doesn’t quite manage it. Whatever “literary” crime means, the Jackson Brodie series (at least this entry in the series) is a fabulous achievement of it! Atkinson and Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series are both sublime!
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Date: August 2006