“Life is creating order out of chaos on a daily basis. And that’s what a book is: You’re creating order out of chaos.
But what astonishing order! What splendid chaos!”
Kate Atkinson has written several books since her first novel in 1995, but the eight that could be considered crime or suspense fiction – five featuring the grumpy, anxious, large-hearted detective Jackson Brodie, and three centered around World War II – are constructed in remarkable fashion. Balls are thrown in the air and juggled in increasingly complex patterns. Plotlines converge, separate, converge again. Puzzles are laid out for us, only to be discovered to be something else entirely. Secrets abound, not only in the plot, but in what Atkinson chooses to reveal, and when.
None of this wizardry is meant to show off how clever the author is. It is to demonstrate how fragile our lives are, how they can turn on a dime. “The littlest thing,” a character thinks in One Good Turn (2006). “A man stepping off the pavement in front of your car. A girl saying, ‘You want coffee?’ The littlest thing could change your life forever.”
Filled with acute psychological portraits, characters who are real and sympathetic, even at their most odious; suffused by tragedy – violence, murder, child molestation, incest – and yet written with such rich exuberance and sly wit that even the most horrifying incident crackles with energy and imagination, these books are messy, funny, and bittersweet – just like life.
At the heart of the Jackson Brodie books is, of course, Jackson Brodie. When we first meet him in Case Histories (2004), he is a veteran of the military police and then of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary, where he spent twelve years, rising to detective inspector. Then, after a spectacular implosion of his marriage, he quit, and has now spent two years as a private detective – though he isn’t very fond of that term: “It had too many glamorous connotations (or sleazy, depending how you looked at it). Too Chandleresque. It raised people’s expectations” (Big Sky, 2019).
He prefers to spend his time pottering around investigating adulterous wives and missing cats, because he’s already seen enough tragedy to last a lifetime. His mother died of cancer when he was eleven; his father, “an angry man with a heart of coal,” emotionally abandoned his family – Jackson, his seventeen-year-old sister Niamh, and eighteen-year-old brother Francis – to their own devices. Niamh assumed the parental role, commuting back and forth to work every day, and when the weather was bad, it was Francis’s job to pick her up at the bus stop. Until one day, he didn’t, and that was the day a stranger grabbed, raped, and strangled her. Francis could not bear the guilt, and Jackson came home one day to find him hanging from a light fixture.
As soon as he could, Jackson was gone, an army recruit at age sixteen. Since then, he’s seen nearly thirty years of the worst that men can do, but even then, the final straw for his police career didn’t come until his wife Josie blindsided him by running off with a bearded English lecturer, taking with her their eight-year-old daughter Marlee. At the age of 45, Jackson chucked it all and went private.
His bad luck with women continued, however. By the end of Case Histories, Josie has informed him that the three of them – Josie, beard, Marlee – are emigrating to New Zealand. Even when they’re gone, though Josie’s voice still echoes in his head. When Jackson reflects in the third book, When Will There Be Good News? (2008) that life was easier if you were a happy idiot, for instance, her voice replies, “Well, you’ve got the idiot part right.”
Then in the heartbreaking case of a little girl who’s been missing for over thirty years, he meets, in the present, her three older sisters. Two of them take a shine to him. Only one seduces him – a small-time actress named Julia, very effusive, with a reckless streak a mile wide, and an eccentricity that Jackson suspects is cultivated. Jackson thinks they might get married, but by the time of the second book, One Good Turn, two years have passed and she’s over him: “Do you honestly think, sweetie, that being married would stop us from getting bored with each other?”
Julia leaves him for Mr. Arty-Farty photographer, and has a baby named Nathan, whom she insists is not Jackson’s, until Jackson’s surreptitious DNA test proves he is. For the rest of the series, they see each other off and on, particularly when a dreadful TV police show she’s acting in called Collier intersects with one of his cases in Started Early, Took My Dog (2010). As with Josie, she, too, takes up space in his head (when watching a TV game show that is “complicated and moronic at the same time,” he hears Julia’s voice chime in: “Like you, then.”).
All right, so Julia doesn’t work out. That is definitely not going to be the case with Tessa! Tessa is a curator for the British Museum, warm, funny, smart, independent – Jackson can’t believe his good fortune. In When Will There be Good News?, they’ve known each other for four months and been married for two, when she flies off to a conference in Washington, D.C., and never comes back. Neither does Jackson Brodie’s bank account. He’d inherited a nice sum of money at the end of Case Histories, and it’s completely cleaned out. “She had taken him for the longest of cons – seduced, courted, married, and robbed him blind.” Oh, Jackson.
Which leaves Louise Monroe, the woman he should have gotten serious about. A newly minted police inspector, “climbing over the bodies on the way up,” Louise, 38, is also funny and smart, but also self-doubting, bristly, and spiky, with a mutinous fourteen-year-old son she considers “a high price to pay for a desperate bout of sex with a married colleague who never even knew he’d fathered a child.” She and Jackson work closely in One Good Turn, but “there’d never been anything between them, at least nothing that was ever spoken….They had never kissed, never touched, although Jackson was pretty sure she had thought about it. He certainly had. A lot.”
But Jackson was still with Julia then, and for Louise, “it had been going nowhere because there was nowhere to go….They had been as chaste as participants in an Austen novel. All sense and sensibility, no persuasion at all.” She met a nice surgeon named Patrick, texted the news of her wedding to Jackson, Jackson promptly proposed to Tessa, and the rest was history. Except…she can’t help wondering “if she might have taken the wrong road without even noticing the turning.” Patrick “was far too good for her. Too nice. It made her want to behave badly, to see how far she could push him, to smash the niceness….She had married the wrong man. No, no, she had married the right man, it was just that she was the wrong woman….She should have told the truth. She should have told the truth about everything. She should have said, ‘I have no idea how to love another human being unless it’s by tearing them to pieces’.” (When Will There be Good News?).
At the very end of the most recent Brodie book, Big Sky, many years later, he calls her. “Superintendent Louise Monroe,” she answers. He doesn’t know what to say or whether to say anything. “Jackson,” she says, almost in a whisper. “Jackson, is that you?” He hangs up.
You’d think that all of this – the terrible childhood, his warped romantic history, all the death and cruelty he’d seen as a soldier and a policeman – would have left him permanently scarred, and it has – but not every bit of him. Despite his core of darkness, there is light. “Investigating other people’s tragedies and cock-ups and misfortunes was all he knew. He was used to being a voyeur, the outsider looking in, and nothing that anyone did surprised him any more. Yet despite everything he’d seen and done, inside Jackson there remained a belief – a small, battered and bruised belief – that his job was to help people be good, rather than punishing them for being bad” (Case Histories).
Or, as he observes in When Will There be Good News?, “Jackson was a shepherd, he couldn’t rest until the flock was accounted for, all gathered together safely in. It was his calling and his curse. Protect and serve.”
That takes many forms. Jackson is a great believer in cosmic justice, in seeing that “bad people were punished, people with good intentions weren’t crucified” (Big Sky). “What does justice have to do with the law?” a furious victim named Joanna Hunter declares in When Will There Be Good News?, and he couldn’t agree more. This is why, when Hunter kills her captors and asks Jackson to set the house on fire, so that no one will ever know what happened, and her baby need never grow up with the burden of that history in her past, Jackson willingly complies. That is why, when a sex-trafficked woman in Big Sky avenges her sister’s death by shooting the chief perpetrator in the back, twice, once for herself and once for her sister, Jackson and the only other living witness, a sympathetic policewoman, make a pact to say that it was one of the members of the gang who’d done it. “Criminals,” says Jackson, “they’re a law unto themselves. They turn on each other all the time. In my experience.”
That that sympathetic policewoman happens to be Reggie Chase, the grown version of a sixteen-year-old girl Jackson first encountered in When Will There Be Good News?, when she was a babysitter for Joanna Hunter and her child, will not be a surprise for any Atkinson reader. In her books, lives intertwine constantly. Reggie is also the person who saves Jackson’s life in When Will There Be Good News? after a terrible train crash. She’s also the one who convinces Joanna that her life is in danger in the first place, because Joanna’s skeevy husband has gotten into some bad business. Not that Joanna needs a lot of convincing to run. Her whole life has been a run from her horrific past – at the age of six, she saw her entire family murdered by a man named Andrew Decker. Now, an inspector named Louise Monroe has informed her that Decker is out of prison – could he be headed back to her? He certainly could – except that what neither Louise nor Joanna know is that Decker is in the hospital, another victim of that terrible train crash that almost killed Brodie. Or at least Decker’s ID information is – in the pocket of the injured Brodie, the wallet swept up in the confusion of the disaster.
Would it surprise you to know Brodie was the one, thirty years before, who, on Army maneuvers and called in to help search for a missing girl, found the six-year-old Joanna cowering in a field? I didn’t think so.
Connections pop up all the time in the Jackson Brodie books. An incident of road rage in One Good Turn impacts every single major character in the book (and many of the minor ones). A Russian dominatrix who plays a principal role in Started Early, Took My Dog (2010), amuses herself by working an occasion honey trap for Brodie in Big Sky. A yellow-haired beggar girl in Case Histories plays a central part in one of the book’s cases, and then another, and then another.
You may call this coincidence, but as Jackson Brodie will tell you, “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen,” and, when pressed, “If you get enough coincidences, they add up to a probability” (an insight, he admits sheepishly, he heard on an old Law and Order). No matter what you expect out of life, things happen: “The interrupted journey, the unexpected gift, the unforeseen encounter. Life had its plots,” he says in Started Early, Took My Dog, and, later, “I was no longer sure it mattered which way you went, you never ended up where you expected. Every day a surprise, you caught the wrong train, the right bus. A girl opens a box and gets more than she bargained for.”
Or as a bereft father in Case Histories puts it, “Theo knew that the journey that began with a tiny screw not being threaded properly ended with the cargo door blowing off in midair.”
Ursula Todd knows about interrupted journeys and unforeseen encounters. The first of Atkinson’s standalones centered around World War II, the dazzling, inventive, deeply moving Life After Life (2013) revolves around the large Todd family, but especially Ursula, who from a very young age feels something…off…about herself. “Sometimes she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur….Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.” As she gets older, it only gets worse: “There was always something just out of sight, just around a corner, something she could never chase down – something that was chasing her down.”
The readers knows early what it is. As the narrative zigzags through multiple timelines stretching from 1910 to 1967, we see Ursula live – and die – many times, her fate and the fates of others shooting off in new directions, large and small. She dies at birth, then doesn’t; drowns at the beach, then is rescued. She dies during the flu epidemic because she greets a servant named Bridget back from an Armistice celebration in London; then doesn’t greet Bridget, but her brother Teddy does, and he dies, and then she dies; then locks the front door so Bridget can’t get in, but her sister Pamela goes to fetch her, and all three die; then desperately on the day of the celebration, Ursula pushes Bridget down the stairs – “All she knew was that she had to do it” – incapacitating the servant, keeping them all safe, but earning Ursula a visit to a child psychiatrist.
Each death – and life – has major repercussions, but none more so than during the years leading up to and during World War II. In one timeline, a sexual assault in her youth leads to a deep shame and the death of others, including herself at the hands of an abusive husband; in another, her spirited resistance of the assault spins a self-confident Ursula into intelligence work at the Home Office (“Ursula was good, very good, at keeping secrets”), leading her to undercover work in Germany. At one point, she dies during an air raid in London, as an air warden tries to comfort her; at another, a different woman dies in that air raid, and Ursula is thae air warden trying to bring comfort.
All of this is described in prose that jumps and glows, getting under your skin, the colors of the burning buildings, the sight of barrage balloons that “dotted the sky like blind whales bobbing around in the wrong element,” the stink of destruction, not “just the smell of coal gas and high explosive [but] the aberrant odor produced when a building was blown to smithereens.”
And all of it, life by life, death by death, leads to an increasing self-awareness, a growing strength, the instincts that confused her so as a child, that led to her pushing Bridget down the stairs, gradually becoming crystal-clear in her mind. She has a plan now. She will grow up; learn “German, shorthand, typing, shooting,” and get an office job to salt away money, “and then she was ready, she would have enough to live on while she embedded herself deep in the heart of the beast….She knows what she is now and what she must do.”
Want to know what it is? It’s all in the first chapter – and nearly the last: “One breath. One shot. Ursula pulled the trigger. Darkness fell.”
One of the characters whose spirit hovers over much of Life After Life is Ursula’s brother Teddy, a would-be poet and heroic bomber pilot, whose death over Germany affects everybody in one way or another. It is only at the end that we find out he did not die, but was captured, and at the end of the book, like a miracle, he reappears. Viewing him with his childhood sweetheart Nancy (who herself was murdered in one of Ursula’s timelines), Ursula is cautious: “[She] stopped where she was, worried suddenly that if she moved it could all disappear, the whole happy scene break into pieces before her eyes.”
It doesn’t disappear, but it doesn’t stay happy, either. Atkinson’s next book, A God in Ruins (2015), is a companion piece to Life After Life. Many of the same characters appear in it, but it is really Teddy’s story over the course of nearly a century. If the first book was about multiple chances to get a life right, A God in Ruins is about the fact that, in reality, we get only one. “There are no second chances, life’s not a rehearsal,” says Teddy’s daughter Viola. Even Ursula concurs: “We can only ever be walking into our future, best foot forward and all that.”
Much of the book is just as harrowing as Life After Life, particularly the war chapters, where we see the flip side of the London air raids in the havoc Teddy reaps in his bombing flights over Germany: “Later, much later, long after the war was over, he learned… that they had been sent deliberately to residential districts. That people were boiled in fountains and baked in cellars. They were burnt alive or suffocated, they were reduced to ash or melted fat…(‘An eye for an eye,’ Mac said at the squadron reunion. Until everyone was blind, Teddy wondered?’).”
“He had made a vow, a private promise to the world in the long dark watches of the night, that if he did survive, then in the great afterward he would try to be kind, to live a good quiet life.”
A God in Ruins is that life, sometimes good, sometimes quiet, sometimes disappointing, always intensely moving and rich in character and incident over four generations. It has some of Life After Life’s pyrotechnics – multiple narratives, timelines that jump back and forth, flash-forwards, and authorial comments (when Teddy imagines a future son, Atkinson notes, “In that future, he had no sons, only a daughter, Viola, something which would be a sadness for him, although he never spoke of it, certainly not to Viola, who would have been volubly affronted.”) – but at its heart is something much simpler: a good man, his practical wife, their very trying daughter (“He loved Viola as only a parent can love a child, but it was hard work”), and the grandchildren, Sunny and Bertie, who take a long time to find themselves, but end up doing exactly that. At one point or another, you will be exasperated by each of them. At one point or another, they will break your heart.
And no more so than at the very end of the book. I won’t give it away, but just as the end of Life After Life turned our knowledge of Teddy’s fate on its head, so too does A God in Ruins. Earlier, contemplating the horrors of the war, Teddy concludes, “The whole edifice of civilization turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination.”
He has no idea. One critic has called it “one of the most devastating twists in recent fiction.” You’ll see for yourself.
Ursula Todd is not the only character in Kate Atkinson’s World War II-based fiction who is “good, very good at keeping secrets.” Virtually everyone in Atkinson’s third standalone, Transcription (2018) fits that description.
Chief among them is Juliet Armstrong, an eighteen-year-old orphan recruited in 1940 by the Security Service. An agent named Godfrey Toby has set up an apartment designed to be a gathering place for British Fascists to provide information for the Fatherland, with Toby himself as the supposed conduit. The apartment is bugged, of course, and it is Juliet’s job to transcribe the tapes: “Chatter and gossip, a lot of it, yet somehow more alarming because of that. The willingness of ordinary people to bring any scrap of information if they thought it would help the enemy’s cause….Juliet knew them by their voices, not their faces. Trude’s singsong Scandinavian, Victor’s thick Geordie lilt, Betty’s Essex-housewife whine.”
The man who’s selected Juliet is Peregrine Gibbons, a man who swings from great charm to a dark moodiness, but after taking her for a muddy, miserable tramp across the countryside one day – a test she somehow seems to pass, but of what? – he bumps her up in status. He needs someone to infiltrate an upper-class Fascist circle. She shall be Iris Carter-Jenkins, with a deceased mother bearing “some rather tenuous connections to the royal household.”
“Try not to act,” he says, “try just to be. And remember, if you’re going to tell a lie, tell a good one….It can be a difficult concept, fabricating a lie – the falsehoods and so on. Some people find it challenging to dissemble in this way. ‘Not me,’ Juliet thought.”
She is right. The work is dangerous, but exciting, and soon she has worked her way inside…and that’s when people start to die, the innocent and the guilty alike. “Good and evil, dark and light,” Perry muses. “You can’t have one without the other, I suppose. Perhaps we are all dualists.”
Perry certainly is. He bears a deep secret, but for the life of her, Juliet cannot figure it out (though the reader will). “Can I do something, sir?” she asks. “You can’t help me,” he replies. “No one can.”
Godfrey Toby, too, has a secret. “Keep an eye on him,” Perry’s boss tells her, “for anything that strikes you as odd.” “What if there was a greater deception game in play?” Juliet wonders. “What if Godfrey really was a Gestapo agent? A Gestapo agent pretending to be an MI5 agent pretending to be a Gestapo agent.”
She never finds out. The operation ends successfully, though the deaths still haunt, and it’s back, they assume, to the humdrum: “How wrong they were. ‘Humdrum’ was the very last word that could be used to describe the horror of what happened next.”
Ten years later, Juliet is working for the BBC, and running an occasional safe house for MI5. But then one of her subjects, a Czech scientist, goes missing. She receives a note at work: “You will pay for what you did.” She sees Godfrey in the street, but he refuses to acknowledge her. Perry unexpectedly strolls by her office door. A figure from the old Fascist circle encounters her on the sidewalk: “Iris Carter-Jenkins! Fancy bumping into you here.”
“The dead were everywhere, tumbling out of the box of the past and inhabiting the world of the living.”
And much more is yet to come. “Nothing is as simple as it looks, Miss Armstrong,” a man explains to her. “Surely you, of all people, know that. There can be many layers to a thing.” Within those layers, she will find, rests the truth – about Godfrey, and Perry, and the scientist, and many other people she thought she knew…including herself.
It’s a hell of a book. All eight of the books in this piece are. The last of them, though, Big Sky, was published in 2019. What’s Atkinson been doing since? In interviews connected to Big Sky, she dropped bread crumbs about two books she was working on simultaneously. One was a Jackson Brodie book, an Agatha Christie homage, “a very funny book” for which she’d already written the ending, and had a title. The other was a “big book,” a return to York and the second world war, called Line of Sight.
As it turns out, however, the next book is…neither. Shrines of Gaiety is set in 1926 London and features a nightlife impresario named Nellie Coker, her six children, and the many threats she faces from within and without; a dark and labyrinthine tale of London in the aftermath of the Great War, as hedonism replaces sacrifice and duty. In the words of one advance reviewer: “A big, bustling universe fully inhabited by vivid characters.”
It comes out on September 27th, and it’ll be big.
Nothing about Kate Atkinson’s success was ever assured, though. When she published her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, in 1995, she was 44, a single mother of two, and had been making her living as a tutor, a home health aide, and a chambermaid, among other jobs. When that book won the Whitbread Book of the Year prize, beating out everyone, including the writer everyone thought would win, Salman Rushdie, the media couldn’t believe it – “Unknown chambermaid wins prize!”
“There was a lot of really snotty stuff,” she said later. “The worst was the Express. There was a female reporter and she was very nice and pleasant and was wanting to ask me about my family and my childhood and all that crap. My mother used to help out part-time in my parents’ surgical supply shop. The reporter said to me, “Did you feel that because your parents worked that you were neglected in any way?’ I kind of went, ‘No,’ because it never even crossed my mind as a child. In the written interview it comes out, ‘I asked her if she felt neglected as a child and, though she denied it, a pained expression crossed over her features.’ It was like, ‘FUCK YOU, LADY!’”
Mind you, there were unusual elements to her past. For one, her father was given up by his young parents, and he was raised by his grandmother until he was nine. His siblings didn’t even know he existed until she died and he showed up at their door, announcing, “I’m your brother Jack.”
Then, when applying for a passport, Atkinson, 30, accidentally discovered that her parents hadn’t even been married when she was born, and that her mother had been married before. She decided to ask her about it. “It was during the royal wedding of Charles and Diana, and I was sitting with a baby on my knee. I thought, I’ll just be casual, and I said, ‘Oh, you never told me you were married before?’ I thought it was a good offhand conversational way to introduce that I was illegitimate.” Atkinson’s mother turned to her and said, “I was going to tell you, but you left the room.” End of answer.
She met both of her two husbands at the University of Dundee, where she went to study, had a daughter by each, earned a master’s degree in English literature in 1974, and then embarked on a doctorate. “I thought doing a doctorate and having a baby would be a good combination. Actually, having a baby isn’t a good combination with anything.” Worse than that, when she went for her oral exam – she failed. “It was a very political thing that happened to me. It had very much to do with departmental politics. I say that from a cool distance. Only much later did I realize that I was totally devastated. Academic writing and study had been a very creative thing for me. That’s where I put a lot of my energy. Somehow everything I had been doing just disappeared. That very same university offered me an honorary doctorate in 2006 and I wrote an incredibly polite letter back saying, ‘Thank you very much. But actually I would like my real one.’” She laughs. “I heard nothing back.”
She moved back to England, had her second baby, worked at many jobs, and “started writing very personal fiction, very ‘Oh God. My life is awful’ kind of pieces. All my creativity had gone into that PhD and there was a certain feeling of bereftness. I started practicing little pieces; you have to get all that autobiographical rubbish out of the way. And then I started practicing writing stories. I was very cautious about getting it right..”
“My doctorate was in the history of the short story since the world began, ending in America and the ‘60s and ‘70s. Because of that I was very aware of what made a good story. Then the first things I ever sent anywhere won a big magazine competition. That was how I became a writer, really. It was a very slow burn. That was from first putting pen to paper around 1982 to winning that competition in 1986 to a novel accepted in 1994.”
The magazine was Woman’s Own, and when she won the Woman’s Own Short Story Award, it was with “the first thing that was truly not about myself.” More stories followed, “about love, romance, adoption,” and then in 1993, one of them was named first runner-up in another short-story competition. “I went to the prize ceremony and took my friend Maureen with me and said, ‘We have to find an agent.’ This woman came up and said, ‘Do you have a novel in the drawer? And I said, “I’ve got a few chapters,’ and I sent them to her.”
The agent liked them, took her on, sent the chapters out, went into an auction, and Atkinson got a two-book deal. “I thought, Really? Just like that?” The first book became Behind the Scenes at the Museum.
Now she lives in Edinburgh in a lovely old Edwardian house and spends her time writing. “I’ve done lovers, husbands, children,” she said in 2006. “I’m on to grandchildren and living on my own. I don’t need to go through all that life stuff so much. There’s a lot of messy stuff that’s out of the way now.”
She gets up around five a.m., makes a cup of strong coffee, and spends a few hours “faffing about,” doing yoga, organizing her life, and making more coffee. By 9:30, she’s ready to work, sitting on one of her two sofas, feet up. She stays at it for eight to nine hours, until her “brain packs up. Nobody’s holding a gun to my head. It’s a job that I’ll be doing until I drop in harness.” She says she fantasizes about organizing her interlocking narratives with “one of those enormous white boards that they have in police shows,” but instead holds most of the complexities in her head, feeling the book out as she goes: “I don’t have goals when writing books, apart from getting to the end. I have rather vague ideas about how I want things to feel; I’m big on ambience. I have a title, a beginning, and a probable ending and go from there. Writing for me is quite a plastic form, a kind of mental sculpture, although that sounds weird. It acquires its character and its depth as it goes along. I rewrite all the time. Every day. Every day. If you looked at my process, as we call it, you would think, ‘God, this woman is faffing.’ But it helps me think.”
She has won not only the Whitbread, but the Costa Best Novel Book Award, not once but twice, for Life After Life and A God in Ruins, plus When Will There Be Good News? was a finalist for the CWA Gold Dagger. In 2011, she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to literature.
“I always think I’ll know when it’s time for me to go,” she says, “because there won’t be any books there waiting to be written.”
The Essential Atkinson
With any author, readers are likely to have their own particular favorites, which may not be the same as anyone else’s. Your list is likely to be just as good as mine – but here are the ones I recommend.
Case Histories (2004)
“Investigating other people’s tragedies and cock-ups and misfortunes was all he knew. He was used to being a voyeur, the outsider looking in, and nothing, but nothing, that anyone did surprised him any more. Yet despite everything he’d seen and done, inside Jackson there remained a belief – a small, battered and bruised belief – that his job was to help people be good rather than punishing them for being bad.”
“You’re too soft to be in business. Too soft or too stupid.”
–His assistant, Deborah
In Case Histories, both Jackson and Deborah will be proven right. Before Jackson is even introduced, however, we encounter the three cases with which he will become entangled, one after the other.
Case History No. 1: In 1970, a three-year-old girl named Olivia disappears overnight from a tent in her family’s backyard, even though her sister Amelia is sleeping right next to her. Thirty-four years later, the girl never found, Amelia and her other sister Julia find Olivia’s stuffed toy hidden in their recently deceased father’s study. Nobody liked him, he was much too unpleasant, but that doesn’t mean…or does it?
Case History No. 2: In 1994, Theo Wyre’s adored eighteen-year-old daughter Laura is in her very first day at her father’s office, working there because Theo fears for her so much – “Every time Laura left the house, he worried about her, every time she leaped on her bike, put on her wet suit, stepped on a train” – when a man runs in, stabs her to death, and leaves. Theo’s every waking moment since has been spent trying to find him.
Case History No. 3: In 1979, an eighteen-year-old woman named Michelle, “with a husband and a baby and a bloody cottage in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by all sides by nothing but horizon, so that it felt as if the sky was a huge stone that was pressing you into the ground,” finally cracks when the baby she’d finally gotten to sleep wakes up screaming because her husband has clattered in. She grabs an ax and kills him. Now her sister hires Jackson to locate the grown baby.
Three completely different cases, filled with secrets and offbeat characters – how could they possibly be related? But as the story unfolds, facts emerge, perspectives shift, characters change – and lead to Case History No. 4, the most devastating one of all.
A brilliantly moving introduction to a series and its unforgettable protagonist.
One Good Turn (2006)
“Gloria liked rules, rules were Good Things….She daydreamed about being the keeper at the gates, of standing with the ultimate ledger and ticking off the names of the dead as they appeared before her, giving them the nod through or the thumbs-down. All those people who parked in bus bays and ran the red light on pedestrian crossings were going to be sorry when Gloria peered at them over the top of her spectacles and asked them to account for themselves.”
Actually, maybe Gloria won’t have to wait that long. Her sleazy husband Graham Hatter, builder of a string of shoddily-constructed houses, not to mention having “his fingers in so many pies that he had run out of fingers long ago,” is unconscious in the hospital after a heart attack-inducing session with a dominatrix. With luck, his time is almost up.
The same is potentially true for any number of other people in the book, all of whom intersect at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. A hit man on his way to a job is rear-ended by a thug, who charges at him with a baseball bat before being incapacitated by a mild-mannered author of insipid detective novels throwing his laptop at the thug’s head. That puts the author in the thug’s gunsights, and he goes to the writer’s house to kill him, instead accidentally killing a has-been comic and Festival performer who is staying there. Also a focus of his ire: Jackson Brodie, who witnesses the baseball bat attack while at the Festival to attend his girlfriend Julia’s abysmal performance in an atrocious play, and who stops to help the writer. Gloria’s at the Festival, too, in line for the has-been comic’s showcase. So is Archie, the wayward teenage son of Louise Monroe, the inspector who’ll soon be investigating all sorts of crimes growing out of the inciting incident, as well as that of the dead body found on the beach by someone named Brodie who claims he used to be a policeman.
She also has to figure out what to do with her mother’s ashes. Not that he and her mother ever got along. “Perhaps if she added water to the saucer, her mother could be resurrected, the clay re-formed from the dust. Her moth-wing lungs might reinflate and she would rise like a genie from the urn and sit opposite Louise at the too-small kitchen table in the too-small kitchen and tell Louise how sorry she was for all the bad things she’d done. And Louise would say, ‘Too fucking late, get back in your urn.’”
The actions of all these characters, plus several more – keep your eye on that dominatrix – will come together in an immensely satisfying series of denouements, twists, and reveals in this bleakly funny, deeply human exploration of love, loss, disappointment – and karma.
Life After Life (2013)
“What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“I think it would be exhausting.”
Instead of embarking on a further description of Life After Life, I thought I’d use its Essentials spot to make a point.
The characters talking above are Ursula Todd and her brother Jimmy, but they could just as easily be the author – any author – talking to him- or herself. One of the notable achievements of Kate Atkinson is to make us aware of the startling number of choices and decisions that a writer must make on every page. It is there in every one of her books, but most notably in Life After Life, where every choice, every wrinkle, has reverberations that ripple through the fates of a character, a family, a country, a world.
In one plotline, Ursula goes to Germany with a very specific plan in mind. In another, she is a political naïf who is just there to enjoy herself and to live with a German family for a year – which turns into much longer, as she falls in love with a handsome German, becomes friendly with Eva Braun, has a child, loses her husband in an air raid, finds herself starving and under bombardment in 1945 Berlin (“Perhaps it was Teddy up there, dropping bombs on them”). Finally, her daughter desperately ill, the stories running rampant of Soviet troops raping and murdering through Germany, she gives her daughter poison, then herself: “Soon they were both wrapped in the velvet wings of the black bat.”
Every author has choices like this to make while writing. Few demonstrate them as graphically, or with more delicacy, or, in Atkinson’s words, with a greater “interplay of plot, character, narrative, theme, and image, and all the other ingredients that get thrown in the pot.”
“Life is creating order out of chaos on a daily basis. And that’s what a book is: You’re creating order out of chaos.”
“I like to think of A God in Ruins as one of Ursula’s lives, an unwritten one,” she has written. “This sounds like novelist trickery, as perhaps it is, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of trickery….Every time a writer throws themselves at the first line of a novel, they are embarking on an experiment. An adventure.”
Here’s to the next adventure.
Atkinson wrote four books before starting the Jackson Brodie series – three novels and a collection of short stories. Of them, the Whitbread-winning Behind the Scenes at the Museum is definitely the most notable – a family saga centering around Ruby Lennox, whose narrative of self-discovery becomes the story of her spectacularly dysfunctional Yorkshire family’s survival through two world wars. There’s a strong authorial voice – telling stories, making asides, pointing out details, commenting in lengthy footnotes – and the whole effect is both heartbreaking and often wildly funny.
The next two novels – Human Croquet (1997) and Emotionally Weird (2000) – got decidedly mixed receptions, the general feeling being that she was trying too hard to capture the postmodern feeling of Museum – too many tricks ( in Weird, for instance, she assigns different fonts to various characters and settings) – and not enough emotional substance. “Museum proved Atkinson could be playful and probing when she chooses,” said one critic.
The story collection, Not the End of the World (2002), fared better, the sudden shifts from ordinary life to fairy tale, from a bad day to the end of the world, seeming to work better in short story form than in the previous two novels. Still, one reviewer wrote, “She could (dangerously, for her own development) be typecast as wacky rather than deep….”
Atkinson may have come to the same conclusion. Her next book was Case Histories – and she never looked back.
The first four Brodie books were made for the BBC as Case Histories – and shown in the U.S. on Masterpiece Mystery! – and broadcast in 2011 through 2013. Starring Jason Isaacs (best known as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies), they were nominated for several international awards, and I remember them as quite good, even though it was impossible to capture all the complexities of plot and character that drive the books.
Atkinson liked the series – mostly. In 2010, she noted, “I’ve been more involved than has been good for me, probably. Also, they have filmed in my hometown and I know quite a lot of cast and crew – my son-in-law is the transport captain – so that’s been quite odd as well. I think for the second series I’ll try and be a little more hands-on to keep the scripts in good order.”
Big Sky has not yet been made for television, but, interestingly, the book began as a screenplay about a female detective, meant for an actress who had appeared in the other Brodie adaptations. That actress died, though, and Atkinson put the screenplay aside, before eventually deciding it would work for a Brodie book.
Two seasons of Case Histories are currently available to stream on Peacock.
Life After Life was also adapted for television by the BBC, in four episodes that were broadcast just this year, from April to May of 2022. Starring Thomasin McKenzie, Sian Clifford, James McArdle, and Jessica Brown Findlay, it was declared by the Guardian to be “thoroughly addictive…incredibly compelling, binge-worthy even, despite being practically plotless from one episode to the next.” There’s no word yet on broadcast dates or streaming availability in the States – but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it popping up at any time on PBS or a streaming service.
And then there’s the television series that Kate Atkinson co-created for…Shonda Rimes! It was a moody thriller about a woman auditor whose fiancé disappears with her money and turns out to be a con artist. Atkinson wrote the treatment, and ABC greenlit the series and announced that it would run in the slot being vacated by How to Get Away with Murder in what had become Shondaland Thursday. That’s when things became complicated. The showrunner was replaced. Cast members were replaced. The woman auditor became the head of an investigation firm specializing in fraud, her look got glammed up, and the whole vibe changed from moody thriller to lighthearted cat-and-mouse. Called The Catch, and starring Peter Krause and Mireille Enos, it ran for two seasons and twenty episodes from 2016 to 2017, and then was cancelled. Presumably, Atkinson’s contribution began and ended with that initial treatment.
[Michelle, the ax murderer]: “She should have studied science, not spent all her time with her head in novels. Novels gave you a completely false idea about life, they told lies and they implied there were endings when in reality there were no endings, everything just went on and on and on.”
“Jackson fished in his wallet for DC Lowther’s card and phoned him. ‘The plot thickens,’ he said, and wished he hadn’t said that because it sounded like something from a bad detective novel. ‘I think we have a suspect.’ That didn’t sound much better. ‘My house has just exploded, by the way.’ At least that was novel.”
“The Girl With the Unicorn Backpack. It sounded like one of those Scandi noir books that he didn’t read. Jackson didn’t like them much. Too dark and twisted or else too lugubrious. He liked his crime fiction to be cheerfully unrealistic.”
“Louise surveyed the corpse on the slab dispassionately. She considered it best to leave her emotions at the door when it came to postmortems. There were a lot of programs on television these days in which the police and the forensics all banged on about how a dead body wasn’t just a dead body, it was a person. The pathologists were always addressing the deceased as if they were alive (“Who did this to you, sweetheart?”), as if the victim were suddenly going to sit up and give them the name and address of the killer. The dead were just dead.”
–One Good Turn
“Marilyn Nettles [a former reporter turned crime novelist] nodded in the direction of a bookcase where a series of books displayed their titles on their spines – The Poisoned Postwoman, The Fabulous Fiance. Red Blood Press were the publishers, their logo a drawing of a fountain pen dripping with blood….’Basically they’re books for people who can’t read.’ She contemplated the screaming woman on the jacket. ‘Women in jeopardy. Very popular,’ she said, handing Jackson a mug of coffee. ‘You have to wonder.’
“’You do,’ he agreed.”
–Started Early, Took My Dog
[Martin Canning contemplating his books, written as ‘Alex Blake’]:
“They were old-fashioned, soft-boiled crime novels featuring a heroine named Nina Riley, a gung-ho kind of girl who had inherited a detective agency from her uncle. The books were set in the forties, just after the war….When he wrote the first Nina Riley book, he had conceived it as an affectionate nod in the direction of an earlier time and an earlier form. ‘A pastiche, if you will,’ he said nervously, when he was introduced to his editor at the publishing house. ‘A kind of ironic homage….’
“’Be that as it may,’ she said, making a visible effort to look at him, ‘What I see is a book I can sell.’….
“Death on the Black Isle felt even more trite and formulaic to Martin than his previous books…He had been writing a book a year since he began with Nina Riley, and he thought that he had simply run out of steam….He worried that they would never escape each other, that he would be writing about her inane escapades forever. He would be an old man and she would still be 22 and he would have wrung all the life out of both of them. ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,’ Melanie said. ‘It’s called mining a rich seam, Martin.’”
–One Good Turn