Big Sky by Kate Atkinson: Journey back into the heart of darkness
Kate Atkinson, Doubleday
Kate Atkinson's latest crime novel finds her exploring new territory with familiar wit and insight, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
It's impossible not to warm to any novel that includes the line: "You would have thought that getting divorced from a woman would free you of the obligation to identify her corpse, but apparently not."
The mordant wit is typical of Kate Atkinson's technique, combining as it does black humour and the darkest of themes. This is her fifth book about former police inspector turned private investigator Jackson Brodie, a series which began with Case Histories in 2004, and the first to appear in nine years. To call it highly anticipated is putting it mildly.
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Big Sky finds its central character back on home turf, in the seaside towns on the bleak north east coast of England, where the skies are indeed huge, and the subject matter couldn't be grimmer, involving as it does modern day sex trafficking and historic paedophile rings with links to the establishment.
It begins as Brodie is hired by the wife of a dodgy local businessman, who believes she's being followed. As a teenager, she fell victim to a child abuse network known as the "magic circle".
Atkinson's crime novels are not as relentlessly plotted as those of other genre staples, echoing her pedigree as a writer of more mainstream novels as well as thrillers, not least her award-winning 1995 debut Behind The Scenes At The Museum. An excessive reliance on coincidence has long been detected in her plots, but that's simply because the "what happens" is less important to her than the why and who it happens to; but that does mean it's page 113 before the first body appears, and more impatient readers may find their attention lagging.
She makes up for it with the creation of a wide cast of memorable characters, all of whom are given room to breathe, including Brodie himself, who finds himself here landed with his stroppy 13-year-old son in tow for the summer holidays, the former military policeman having reached an age where, he notices wryly, "an increasing number of people... were not listening to him".
Like all detectives, Brodie is a moralist, who thinks that his vocation is to save a fallen world from its worst inhabitants. Another character - no name, no spoilers - finds himself coming to the same realisation later on in the book, albeit by a different route.
"It was suddenly very clear," he notes. "There was no morality. No truth. It was pointless for him to object if there was no longer any consensus about what was right or wrong. It was something you had to decide for yourself. Whichever side you chose, there would be no repercussions from divine authority. You were on your own."
All private detectives live inevitably under the solitary shadow of Raymond Chandler's iconic Philip Marlowe, and Brodie is no exception. He is also self-conscious of that burden, admitting at one point that he dislikes the term "private detective" because "it had too many glamorous connotations (or sleazy, depending how you looked at it). Too Chandleresque. It raised people's expectations".
It's Brodie's curse - his creator's too - that everything reminds him of something else, from The Thirty Nine Steps to Prime Suspect, even the TV quiz show Pointless. At one point, Brodie even begins to imagine his investigation as a series of Scandi-noir novels with titles such as The Girl With The Unicorn Backpack and The Girl With Her Nose In A Book, while still admitting that such offerings were "too dark and twisted" for his tastes. "He liked his crime fiction to be cheerfully unrealistic, although in fact he hardly read anything any more in the genre. Life was too short and Netflix too good."
Atkinson is too well read not to be fully aware of the cliches of the genre she's chosen to make her own, but that's what makes her fiction unlike any other. Even when the plot meanders, there's always the thrill of stumbling across another killer (no pun intended) line, as when the man called in to identify his ex-wife's body is surprised by her appearance and notes that "given a multiple choice questionnaire you wouldn't necessarily have opted for 'dead'".
Anyone who loves that sentence can't fail to be delighted by Big Sky.