Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 21; 2 September 2021

Kate Atkinson, the Jackson Brodie series

Some jolly murder mysteries — but that’s just the start

When the fifth of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, Big Sky, appeared in 2019, some nine years after the fourth, I was puzzled to find one reviewer (I didn’t think to keep the reference) describing the books as a series of “cozy” mysteries. That’s not how I’d been thinking about them. I’ll admit that “cozy” is a slippery term to pin down. (Not least in its spelling. I prefer British English spelling, but not for words with a “z” sound in them, because the letter “z” really ought to be given more work.) We apply the word “cozy” to tales of murder, greed, conspiracy and deceit. There’s bound to be a fine line between comfortable, reassuring familiarity and a minute exploration of the effects of human depravity. So perhaps “cozy” is never an exact fit where crime fiction is concerned. In the case of Atkinson’s crime fiction, however, it strikes me as a singularly poor one.

It’s true that the second book in the series, One Good Turn (2006), has the words “A jolly murder mystery” on the title page — perhaps a subtitle, though I think of it more as a tongue-in-cheek description. The book is certainly not the bleakest in the series, but its jollity, or ironic humour, is of a dark hue. The phrase itself is used in the novel by an editor to refer to the work of Martin Canning, a former religious studies teacher who writes nostalgic crime fiction about a briskly competent young woman who inherits a private detective agency in the aftermath of the second world war. The editor assures him:

… what I see is a book I can sell. A sort of jolly murder mystery. People crave nostalgia, the past is like a drug. How many books do you envisage in the series? (One Good Turn, Transworld paperback, 2007, p. 26)

Several books into his series, Martin inevitably longs to be free of the demands of his “Chalet School head girl” heroine, Nina Riley, and try his hand at some more serious fiction. Atkinson has no intention of getting caught in the same trap as her fictional author. Martin is a well intentioned, if (in his own eyes at least) a somewhat ineffectual character. (He has a guilty secret that, uncharacteristically, I’m reluctant to spoil.) He saves a hitman who is about to be beaten (almost certainly to death) in a road rage incident, by throwing his laptop bag at the assailant.

The thwarted road rage killer later beats a man to death with a baseball bat in Martin’s livingroom. The victim is a has-been comedian named Richard Moat who is in Edinburgh to perform at the festival and has invited himself to stay with Martin, and helped himself to Martin’s Rolex. It’s the Rolex that leads to the initial misidentification of Moat as Martin. There wasn’t enough of Moat’s head or face left for a visual inspection to correct the error.

This book, like the later ones in the series, weaves together different strands of the story, seen from the points of view of different characters. Most of these characters have been witnesses to, or otherwise involved in the road rage and their stories alternate from that starting point. A similar fragmentation of the narrative is seen in the third book, When Will There Be Good News? (2008).

The various protagonists in the third novel include Reggie Chase, a 16-year-old who “could have passed for twelve” (When Will There Be Good News?, Black Swan paperback, 2009, p. 39). People keep asking Reggie where her mother is, but her mother is dead, having drowned in a swimming pool while on holiday. Reggie is “mother’s help” to Dr Joanna Hunter and her infant son, Gabriel. Thirty years earlier, Dr Hunter (“Call me Jo”) was the only survivor when her mother and two siblings were slaughtered in a Devon wheatfield. Jo was 6 at the time and obeyed her mother’s instructions to run. Now, the killer is being released from prison.

After a trip to Yorkshire to take a surreptitious DNA sample from a boy whose mother (Julia from the first two books) denies that Jackson is his father, Brodie gets on a train going the wrong way (to Edinburgh instead of London) and suffers a near-death experience when it is derailed at Musselburgh. Fifteen people are killed but Jackson joins them only briefly. Reggie carries out CPR on the detective, saving his life. When he has recovered, she enlists Jackson’s help to find Dr Hunter, who is missing with her son. That search ends when Jackson burns down a house with two corpses inside, to destroy the evidence that Dr Hunter had killed the kidnappers of her and her son.

She had dispatched them efficiently but bloodily and with unhesitating violence. The kidnappers hadn’t tried to hide their faces: so it had been obvious that they intended to kill her and Gabriel once they had served their purpose. Because she and Gabriel hadn’t been in imminent danger, however, a plea of self-defence would not have succeeded, hence Brodie’s illegal actions.

As Jackson notes in the next book, Started Early, Took My Dog (2010), his firesetting and destruction of evidence have opened a gulf between him and Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe, a character in the previous two books with whom he feels a connection.

He had fled from Scotland, and DCI Louise Monroe, and in his place he had — unconsciously — left a creature close to his emotional heart. She was better off with the dog than with him. He could never be with Louise now. She was within the law, he was outside it. (Started Early …, Transworld paperback, 2010, p. 55)

In this novel, though still retired from being an private investigator, Brodie is looking into the origins of a woman who had been adopted by a surgeon and his wife before they moved from Leeds to New Zealand.

The novel is full of missing, abused and dead children — again, not the usual subject matter for a cozy mystery. It opens with the discovery in 1975 of a 4-year-old boy who has spent three weeks locked in a flat with the decomposing corpse of his murdered mother, living on cornflakes and whatever else he can find in the cupboards. He saw who killed his mother, but the police and social worker don’t believe him. Nor do they believe that he had a younger sister, who is nowhere to be found. Thirty years go by before he is reunited with her. When Julia tearfully describes this as “a lovely story”, Jackson reminds her that “only the ending’s lovely” (p. 317).

One of the main characters is Tracy Waterhouse, a retired Detective Superintendent now head of security at the Merrion shopping centre. She is one of several people who sees Kelly Cross, a drug addict, dragging a four-year-old girl along and yelling at her furiously. On the spur of the moment, Tracy offers to “buy” the child from Kelly, who readily agrees. Tracy has just withdrawn £5,000 from the bank to pay the man who has been extending her kitchen. She gives Kelly £3,000 and gets the little girl, Courtney, in return.

We never find out who Courtney’s mother is. It seems clear that the parent isn’t Kelly, who has several children all of whom, Tracy believes, are in care.

The final novel (so far) revisits some of the themes from One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News? Wives who get away with some of their husbands’ tainted wealth, while the husbands themselves get their comeuppance, for one thing. Jackson covering up the killing by a woman of the man or men who threatened or exploited her, for another. In the cover-up, Jackson is again assisted by Reggie Chase, who is now a Detective Constable in Yorkshire, investigating historical child-abuse cases.

In addition to child-abuse, this novel centers on the predicament of women who are lured from places including Gdansk and Manila with promises of well paid hotel work, only to be chained up in a derelict building and forced into sex work. It is the elder of two sisters from Gdansk, Nadja, whose crime Jackson and Reggie cover up. She shoots (in the back) the man who duped her into coming to Yorkshire, a solicitor named Stephen Mellors. Ironically, she already had a good job in a hotel in Poland, but had wanted to come to London with her sister.

Brodie pins the blame for Mellors’s shooting on one of his accomplices, Andy Bragg. Bragg had been shot earlier with the same gun, though not by Mellors. Brodie makes it look as if Mellors shot Bragg, who grabbed the gun and retaliated, fatally. He tells Bragg, who is facing a long sentence for human trafficking and modern slavery offences, that he should claim to have no recollection of what happened.

“… Complete amnesia. Okay?”
“Or?” Bragg groaned. He was a bargainer, Jackson reckoned. Did he want to bargain with God? Was that what Pascal’s wager was?
“Or I’ll finish you off right now and you’ll go straight to hell. Do the right thing,” Jackson said again. “Take some responsibility for all the pain and suffering you’ve caused.” (Big Sky, Transworld paperback, 2019, p. 312)

Jackson Brodie is not the kind of detective who gathers everybody together at the end and says “I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve called you here.” He’s reasonably intelligent and perceptive but he rarely has all the information needed to work out what has been going on. Typically, there’s at least one character, sometimes more, who has an equal claim to be the central character in the story: Reggie in When Will There Be Good News, Tracy in Started Early, Took My Dog, Crystal (wife of one of the traffickers, Tommy Holroyd) in Big Sky, and Martin, or Louise, or Gloria Hatton in One Good Turn.

In Started Early …, Tracy is one of the people he needs to speak to in his attempt to find out his client’s origins, but even after he has given her and Courtney a lift and had his car taken by her, he still doesn’t know that she is the person he’s looking for. As Tracy and Courtney finally leave Leeds on the train, Brodie makes a last attempt to catch up with her:

He caught sight of his thieving hitchhiker, little girl in tow. She was getting on to another train, leaving more chaos in her wake. He ran towards them but the train was already leaving the platform. He caught sight of the little girl, waving goodbye to him, making hands like stars, until she was out of sight.
An arresting hand on his shoulder made him jump. Brian Jackson. The false Jackson, as he had begun to think of him. Somehow Jackson — the real Jackson — wasn’t surprised.
“She’s a slippery fish, that Tracy Waterhouse.”
“Say again?” Jackson said, wheels spinning in his brain. “That was Tracy Waterhouse?”
“Call yourself a detective.”
“I don’t understand,” Jackson said. He didn’t know why he didn’t just get the sentence tattooed on his forehead. (p. 315)

Before setting up as a private detective, Jackson had been a military policeman and, later, a detective in the Cambridge police force. He’s unmistakably masculine in a rather oldfashioned way, but not too old to learn new tricks. In Started Early …, he has taken to reading, and even to quoting, Emily Dickinson following his near-death experience in the previous book. He quotes “This is my letter to the World” to his dog.

The dog cocked its head. “I don’t know what it means either,” Jackson said. “I think that’s the whole point of poetry.” (p. 349)

He doesn’t like to be without a car. At the beginning of One Good Turn, he and Julia are travelling to Edinburgh.

“Let’s face it, Jackson, you feel unmanned without a car,” Julia said to him on the train journey from London. “Unmanned” was such a Julia word — archaic and theatrical.
“No, I don’t,” Jackson said, “I feel as if I can’t get anywhere.” (One Good Turn, p. 62).

On the bus, while Julia is rehearsing, he gets as far as Cramond and finds the body of a young Russian woman in the sea, which is how he comes to meet Louise Monroe for the first time. Later, when Martin Canning requests his help, he asks Martin if he has a car.

When he was 12 and she was 17, Jackson’s sister Niamh was raped and strangled and her corpse was dumped in the canal. The killer was never caught. This was just a few years before Peter Sutcliffe began to terrorize Yorkshire. Because of this, Brodie has always wanted to protect women and children, to find the lost ones and bring them home. He finds it almost impossible to resist a request for help. When Julia tells him that it’s really Niamh that he’s looking for, and that she’s gone forever, he answers:

“I know that.” Didn’t make any difference, he would go on looking for all the lost girls, the Olivias, the Joannas, the Lauras. And his sister, Niamh, the first lost girl (the last lost girl). Even though he knew exactly where Niamh was, thirty miles away from where he was at the moment, mouldering in cold, damp clay. (Started Early …, p. 47)

Later, he reflects that he’s “[a]lways looking, the sheepdog returning the lost lambs.” (p. 260)

This impulse has become even stronger since his daughter Marlee was born. Marlee is about 10 at the time of One Good Turn, and 23 (and about to be married, though not if Jackson can help it) in Big Sky. In some ways, Jackson is a caricature of the overprotective father — except that, as the plots of these books tend to suggest, even overprotection may not be enough to keep Marlee and children like her safe.

Jackson himself always made sure that in the course of taking snaps of Marlee there was, every year, one good, clear head-and-shoulders shot, facing the camera. That was usually the one that, if he showed it to Josie, she would say, “That’s a great likeness,” and he never told her that it was in case their daughter went missing. Children changed by the day, if you stared at them long enough you could see them grow. When he was on the force he had seen too many poor portraits (holidays, birthdays, Christmasses) over the years. (“She doesn’t really look like that now.”) This was what happened to you when you were a policeman, even on a sunny day in a bateau-mouche on the Seine or on a picnic in a Cornish cove, death was ever present and you were staring at it down a lens. (p. 261)

Seen from one angle, Brodie’s protective paternalism is ridiculous and outdated. It’s funny-sad, even pathetic. But, in a society that still harbours the successors to Peter Sutcliffe and Jimmy Savile, it’s arguably better than the alternatives. Even Jo Hunter, making short work of two brutal thugs, may need Brodie to clean up after her and cover her tracks.

Atkinson captures this tension perfectly, striking a difficult balance in Brodie between toughness and reassurance. It may be this sense of reassurance that makes the novels seem cozy, even when we consider the cruel and terrible things that happen in them to children and vulnerable women.

If you’ve made it this far, you might be interested in something else I’ve written about Kate Atkinson. It’s about rereading her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

Updated 6 November 2021 to add a page reference to a quotation from When Will There Be Good News? and on 11 February 2024 to add page references to those from One Good Turn

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Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 02-Sep-2021.