The irresistible Jackson Brodie returns in Kate Atkinson’s ‘Big Sky’

The empathetic private investigator uncovers big crimes in a small town.
Published June 28

Oh Jackson Brodie, I’ve missed you so.

Brodie, an investigator who is a magnet for chaos and lost causes, is the mighty Kate Atkinson’s most enduring character — although you could make an argument for Ursula Todd, who keeps dying and then living again multiple times in Life After Life. But Brodie keeps living in multiple novels.

Atkinson introduced Brodie in 2004 in Case Histories, then wrote three more novels about him; the books became a BBC series also called Case Histories. Then she took a break from Brodie to write three superb novels set around World War II, Life After Life, A God in Ruins and Transcription. (The first two won Britain’s prestigious Costa Book Award.)

She returns to the present with Big Sky. After nine years’ leave, it’s a delight to see Brodie back. A former soldier and police officer, he is a private investigator now, living quietly (not for long) on a picturesque stretch of the Yorkshire coast near Whitby. The town is notable for being the spot where, in Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula first landed in England; one character works in a ramshackle tourist attraction called Transylvania World.

Brodie’s work life mostly involves tailing cheaters, whose “bridled passion” isn’t very interesting: “Entrapping unfaithful boyfriends and husbands wasn’t dealing with criminals, just high-functioning morons.”

Early in the book, Brodie devotes most of his energy to trying to establish a relationship with his disdainful teenage son, Nathan, and mooning after the boy’s mother, Brodie’s ex-lover Julia. In a meta twist, she stars in a TV cop series; she also lives full time in Brodie’s imagination, which echoes with sharp retorts to his every wrong move by “Judge Julia in his head. She presided over the court of women.”

Brodie can be a talented investigator, if sometimes distracted by his messy personal life. Always, though, he’s motivated by his hard-earned empathy for victims and survivors: “By the time Jackson was thirteen his mother was already dead of cancer, his sister had been murdered and his brother had killed himself, helpfully leaving his body — hanging from the light fitting — for Jackson to find when he came home from school.”

Among the characters in Big Sky reappearing from earlier books is Reggie Chase. In 2008, she was an engaging and resourceful teenage nanny (among other things, she saved Brodie’s life) in When Will There Be Good News? Now she’s grown and has left her sad childhood behind to become a police officer. She and her partner, Ronnie Dobicki, are working on an old case, “an ever-expanding jigsaw, one with a lot of missing pieces as it dialed all the way back to the Seventies and many of the people mentioned were dead.” A sordid matter involving a ring of powerful men who were sexual abusers of children, it happened right around where Brodie now lives — and there are new developments.

There’s a vivid cast of new characters as well. Vince Ives is a middle-aged man who at one point compares himself to Job, and it’s a fair comparison. He has just lost his job — or, in that odd English jargon, been “made redundant” — and he’s being divorced by his wife, who’s taking the money, the house and the dog. He misses the house and the dog.

Vince takes some solace in golfing with Andy Bragg and Tommy Holroyd, a couple of slick local businessmen, and their lawyer, Stephen Mellors, whom Vince saved from drowning when they were schoolboys. What Vince, and Brodie, will find out about the true nature of their business is not consoling.

That business will be a seismic shock for Tommy’s trophy wife, Crystal, a shock that reaches back to her darkest secrets. “Crystal was hovering around thirty-nine years old and it took a lot of work to stay in this holding pattern,” Atkinson writes. “She was a construction, made from artificial materials — the acrylic nails, the silicone breasts, the polymer eyelashes.” But there’s sterner stuff under all that plastic, especially when danger threatens Crystal’s toddler daughter, Candy, whom she dresses 24/7 in princess outfits, and her gawky but lovable teenage stepson, Harry.

Harry, Crystal muses, “was a funny boy, young for his age but also old for his age.” His most trusted confidant is Bunny, a burly drag queen who performs at the creaky old burlesque theater where Harry has a backstage job.

In the book’s first hundred pages or so, Atkinson develops her characters at a leisurely pace, making them so interesting we almost forget this is supposed to be a mystery. Then a body turns up in a garden, head bashed in, and it’s off to the races, the plot careening at such a breakneck pace it’s hard to turn the pages fast enough.

The victims who suffer most from the crimes Brodie discovers are women, but the strongest people around him, often the ones he needs most, are women, too. More than once, he thinks, “It was funny how many men were defined by their downfall. Women hardly ever. They didn’t fall down. They stood up.”

Atkinson is not only skillful but playful with the elements of mystery writing. She ends one chapter with a literal cliff-hanger. Brodie doesn’t like to call himself a private detective because “it had too many glamorous connotations (or sleazy, depending on how you looked at it). Too Chandleresque. It raised people’s expectations.”

As in all the Brodie books, Atkinson marries crime fiction with the comic novel genre, wedding the grim and the humane, all powered by her witty and exuberant prose.

Brodie might not want to seem too Chandleresque, but Raymond Chandler once wrote that the best mysteries are those you’d read even if the last chapter were torn out — because the writing and the characters are so compelling. Big Sky is one of those.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Big Sky

By Kate Atkinson

Little, Brown, 400 pages, $28

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