Kate Atkinson

"When Will There Be Good News?"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple SEP 27, 2008)

“Everywhere you looked there was unfinished business and unanswered questions. He had always imagined that when you died there was a last moment when everything was cleared up for you—the business finished, the questions answered, the lost things found—and you thought, ‘Oh, right, I understand, and then you were free to go into the darkness of the light. But it had never happened when he died (briefly, he heard Dr. Foster say), so perhaps it never would. Everything would remain a true mystery.”

Involving the reader from the suspenseful opening pages, Kate Atkinson’s third Jackson Brodie novel is not a traditional mystery. Instead, it is a novel which grows out of the terrible traumas that children and young people must endure when people they love die violently. So marked are they by their sudden tragedies, that they never really escape their pasts, and may spend the rest of their lives wondering “when will there be good news.”

Five separate plot lines evolve and occasionally overlap here, and in each of these plots the main characters are all needy people hiding an inner loneliness from which they would like to escape. Joanna Mason is only six years old when her father abandons the family in rural Devon and returns to London, but this trauma is just a prelude to the disaster which follows soon after, the murder of her mother, eight-year-old sister, and her baby brother in a slashing attack while they are walking. Joanna, heeding her mother’s screams to run, escapes into a nearby wheat field from which she is later rescued. Thirty years later, Joanna Mason Hunter is a physician living in Edinburgh, the happily married mother of a one-year-old whom she adores, a woman who appears to have it all. She seems to have put her past to rest, and no one connects her to the earlier murders in Devon. Unfortunately, the murderer of her family is about to be released from jail.

Joanna’s “mother’s help” is Reggie Chase, a sixteen-year-old who is an orphan fending for herself in a rundown apartment that she shares on occasion with her delinquent brother, whose illegal activities create constant friction. Reggie adores taking care of Joanna’s baby, helping around the house, and being surrounded with the kind of love Joanna expresses so easily, and she would love to live with Joanna, who has no idea that the “mother” Reggie describes as vibrantly alive, does not, in fact, exist. Her mother has died traumatically over a year ago.

Jackson Brodie, a former police detective who has been working “in security” in recent years, and who has been a lead character in Case Histories and One Good Turn, is now married for the third time—to a curator at the British Museum—and estranged from his twelve-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. He is also prohibited from seeing the two-year-old he believes to be his son with his former girlfriend, who has now married. While working on a case in England, he takes the wrong train and ends up in Edinburgh, where he is terribly injured in a train crash near the house where Reggie Chase is staying, and there their lives begin to connect.

Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe, from England, has come to Edinburgh to meet Joanna, wanting to warn her that the killer of her family has been released. Louise, now married, is a former girl friend of Jackson Brodie, and she is still in the Edinburgh area when she learns from Neil Hunter, Joanna’s husband, that Joanna and baby Gabriel have suddenly gone to see her elderly aunt in England. Jo’s husband Neil Hunter is in terrible financial straits, in debt and in trouble with criminals who want his properties, and Reggie, the babysitter, who arrived to work at Joanna’s unexpectedly empty house, has uncovered some strange evidence. She now believes that Joanna and the baby are missing and may be dead.

Atkinson’s narrative speeds along, enhanced by her skillful pacing as she introduces new elements and surprises to her myriad plot lines, and she is especially adept at creating understanding and empathy for her characters, each of whom is individualized. By recreating the early lives of each of them through flashbacks, and comparing and contrasting those past lives with their present lives, the reader comes to “know” the characters, and despite the huge cast, will have little trouble keeping them all straight. The characters, though superficially quite different from each other, are connected thematically by their neediness and by their yearning for loving relationships. Eventually, they are also all connected through the plot’s complications and mysteries. Ironies abound, and mistaken identities create some bizarre and sometimes darkly humorous scenes.

As one might expect from the large number of characters and plot lines, coincidence plays an important role in resolving the novel in dramatic fashion, and though no one will believe that these twists and turns are truly realistic, they are great fun and completely consistent with the ebullient story-telling that Atkinson has made her signature. After all, as Atkinson says, “Coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.” As the novel winds down and the characters muse about their fates, Atkinson cleverly leaves a few issues open, giving her a wedge into follow-up novels involving Jackson Brodie and one or more other characters.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 92 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from When Will There Be Good News? at Hachette Books

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"One Good Turn"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 8, 2007)

"That detail alone sent Jackson's brain spinning. Boxes within boxes, dolls within dolls, worlds within worlds. Everything was connected. Everything in the whole world."

In a book that is more fun than any other book I've read all year, Kate Atkinson creates a series of bizarre characters, all involved with murder--either planning it, committing it, or trying to avoid it. Many seemingly unrelated characters, involved in several seemingly unrelated plot lines, make their appearance in the first fifty pages. During the four days in which the novel takes place, however, these characters and plots start to overlap and eventually come together, until, at the end, the reader is smiling with pleasure at the brilliant plotting and ironic twists of fate--full of admiration for Atkinson's skill in bringing it all together with such panache.

In the main plot line, an Edinburgh automobile accident leaves "Paul Bradley," a mysterious man and innocent victim, at the mercy of a crazed, baseball bat-wielding Honda driver. A witness, Martin Canning, the timid writer of Nina Riley mystery stories, reacts instinctively to the impending carnage, hurling his laptop at the Honda driver and saving "Paul Bradley" from certain death. A second set of characters revolves around Graham Hatter, the wealthy developer of Hatter Homes, who is in trouble for bribery, money laundering, and fraud in the building of cheap tract houses.

Jackson Brodie, former cop and private investigator, in Edinburgh for a drama festival in which his girlfriend is involved, introduces a third plot line when he discovers a woman's body on the rocks beside the ocean. It washes out to sea, nearly drowning him when he tries to retrieve it. Sgt. Louise Monroe, who lives in one of the Hatter Homes and whose son is a petty thief, is assigned to investigate the report of the body Brodie claims to have seen. Additional threads involve a housecleaning company/escort service, a second-rate comedian who "comes to dinner," and events which took place in Russia some years ago.

Full family backgrounds and work histories are given for all the characters, and it is through these that the reader often detects some of their interconnections. Ironies abound, and as characters' dreams are revealed and their fantasies are explored, the reader comes to know them--until Atkinson reveals even more surprises and shows how much we have yet to learn. With action that comes fast and furious, devious plot twists, and deliciously dark humor, Atkinson crafts a novel that proves one of Jackson Brodie's maxims: "A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen." By the end of this novel, all the explanations have happened.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 85 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from One Good Turn at Hachette Books

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"Case Histories"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 17, 2005)

"There was nothing [in Cambridge] for him, just bad memories and a past he could never undo, and what was the point anyway when France was laid out on the other side of the channel like an exotic patchwork of sunflowers and grapevines and little cafes where he could sit all afternoon drinking local wine and bitter espressos and smoking Gitanes…and he would be happy. Which was exactly the opposite of how he felt now."

Jackson Brodie, a former police inspector turned private investigator, is investigating three old cases, which soon begin to converge and then overlap. Three-year-old Olivia Land disappeared without a trace thirty-five years ago while sleeping in a tent with one of her sisters, two of whom have hired Jackson to find out what happened to her. Theo Wyre has hired him to investigate the death of his daughter Laura, his much-loved 18-year-old daughter, who was slashed and killed by a maniac ten years before while working in her father's office. Theo, having spent ten years accumulating information, has turned over a roomful of files to Jackson. Shirley Morrison, Jackson's third client, is trying to locate her sister and her niece. Her sister Michelle, married at eighteen and living with her husband and screaming daughter on an isolated farm, has vanished from Shirley's life, and after twenty-five years, Shirley wants to find her.

Atkinson introduces these characters and sets up their cases at the outset of the novel, creating suspenseful and dramatic tales which pique the reader's interest in the characters and their lives, especially the female characters. Most have faced traumatic events and suffered through less than ideal childhoods, which unfold inexorably as Atkinson introduces greater complexity through Jackson's investigations of their lives. Not a linear narrative, the novel focuses on different characters in successive chapters, moving back and forth in time to provide background and to set up the overlaps which eventually occur among the cases. The characters are sometimes bizarre, baffling, and even unsympathetic, but they are always memorable for their behavior and their justifications for it, and the reader will have no difficulty keeping track of them.

Filled with ironies and noir humor, the novel also reflects Atkinson's astute observation of social interactions, as she skewers some aspects of her characters' lives at the same time that she manages to create interest and even sympathy for them. While the first two case histories—that of the missing Olivia and the murdered Laura—are genuinely sad and regarded overall as tragedies, the story of Michelle Fletcher, and peripherally, her sister Shirley, is much darker, and even a bit cynical. Though the reader sees overlaps between the first two cases, this case remains undeveloped for much of the novel. Neither Michelle nor Shirley elicits much empathy after the opening chapter, but the occasional interjection of their story line stirs up the action, changes the pace, and keeps the novel from being overly melodramatic. Atkinson's eventual revelations about Michelle's life, apart from Shirley, provide Atkinson with some of her best opportunities for social satire and wit in the latter stage of the novel.

Readers will delight in Atkinson's descriptions throughout—one character described as having "custard yellow hair," another as someone who had "lost her way and ended up in the wrong generation...she would have got along fine in an Edith Wharton novel." The ironies are priceless—the room where Laura was killed has, ten years later, become a day spa named "Bliss," and the place where two other deaths take place becomes an elaborate garden. The religious characters, a vicar and a nun, are shown to have feet of clay, and evil is not necessarily punished.

A detailed analysis of the plot is impossible here without giving away some of the clever twists and turns in this engaging and often very funny novel. With irony at the forefront, Atkinson saves the biggest noir twists for last. The cases, as they have been presented to us at the beginning of the novel, are, in fact, all "solved" by Jackson. But in a supreme irony, they aren't really solved. At least five important "loose ends" regarding the perpetrators in these cases of murder and disappearance remain, showing that even murder cases are not as "cut and dried" as one might expect.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 191 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Case Histories at Hachette Books

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Detective Jackson Brodie series:


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About the Author:

Kate AtkinsonKate Atkinson was born in York in 1951. She went to study English literature at the University of Dundee in 1970 graduating with an MA in 1974, then staying on to write a PhD thesis. Her writing career began when one of her short stories won the Woman's Own short story prize in 1988, which encouraged her to take her writing seriously and led to her writing professionally.

Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the Whitbread First Novel Award and was then chosen as the overall 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year. Stephen King her novel Case Histories considered it "the best mystery of the decade."

She has two daughters and lives in Edinburgh.

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