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May 14, 2020

Rereading Jackson Brodie in the Spring of 2020

“‘Life’s random,’ he said, The best you can do is pick up the pieces.'” —When Will There Be Good News?

There are several ways a reader comes to Kate Atkinson: as the award-winning author of historical novels including Life After Life and A God in Ruins; as author of the Jackson Brodie detective novels, which were made into a celebrated television series; or as the quirky literary superstar who won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 1995 for Behind the Scenes at the Museum, an event celebrated with news headlines referring to Atkinson as “an unknown hotel chambermaid.”

The third route was my own path to Kate Atkinson’s work, though I didn’t encounter it for another decade, reading a copy of a library book I’d borrowed from a friend, which seems like the least intimate literary encounter I’ve ever experienced, but it changed everything for me, the unforgettable first line marking Ruby Lennox’s conception: “I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall…”

I wasn’t fond of detective fiction when I picked Atkinson’s Case Histories, presumably around the same time, but it occurred to me when I did that all literary fiction is about mystery in a sense, and indeed Behind the Scenes at the Museum was, structurally at least, a work of detective fiction, except the sleuth was the reader, because it’s a puzzle of a novel with a solution I didn’t see coming.

But I read Case Histories, because Kate Atkinson was now on my list of fundamental authors, authors whose work I will buy the day of release. Even if I wasn’t as crazy about Jackson Brodie as other readers were, perhaps distrusting of genre—although these books would prove to be my gateway to detective fiction proper, and fifteen years later, I’m absolutely a devotee.

And maybe it was because these books weren’t my favourite, or maybe it was the reason why they weren’t: the plots of the novels didn’t stay with me. Except for the first book, vaguely, the story of the Land sisters and their pile-on of tragedies. When I sat down to reread Case Histories this year in March, it was remarkable that I remembered nothing at all about the story except who had dunnit.

Part of it was that I’m not sure detective fiction necessarily lends itself to rereading for the average reader (and I am also talking about the average work of detective fiction, of which the Jackson Brodie novels, I think, are not). Also because this is a series of novels that have come out over fifteen years—it’s been ten years between Started Early, Took My Dog and the latest, Big Sky. Which I read last June on my 40th birthday, and I remembered nothing of the books that came before. Which is fine—each of these novels stands up fine on their own. But to miss anything of Atkinson’s keen sense of story and detail would be thoroughly a waste, and I thought how much I’d appreciate the chance to reread the Jackson Brodie books from start to finish.

And when the world fell apart in March, and I cycled into despair along with it, finding myself unable to read, the chance appeared, and I took it. Case Histories: An absorbing novel rife with plot, perfect for escaping. But also undeniably dark, brutal, violent, in a way that resonated with the world around me. A book that was an escape, but that was not completely a disconnect either. Why do bad things happen? Why is life so unfair? How do we keep going when people die? How do people survive trauma and tragedy? What kind of life is possible after that?

I was still pretty shattered when I reread Case Histories, during that very bad week I spent unable to eat, barely sleeping, having panic attacks, and finding it exhausting to walk upstairs. But the act of reading, of finding joy and solace again in a book, which is my usual practice, helped me to find my centre again, to find my feet, and feel at home inside myself even at this very strange time.

I don’t know that I properly understand these books’ notion of justice until I read them again in 2020. Jackson Brodie as an outlaw—he used to be a policeman. But the sense that justice proper lives outside the law, which continues to benefit the powerful, which continues to undermine the safety of girls and women. Jackson’s origin story lies in the murder of his older sister, a murder that was was never solved, and it’s a need to right what happened somehow that drives Jackson in these novels, which portray a world, very similar to our own, which is a dangerous case for girls and women.

That murders go unsolved, crimes unavenged. Clues don’t add up, villains get away with it, the banality of so much of this. Reality is a different kind of narrative, is what these books are saying, and yet, somehow, within the confines of a narrative, and there is the possibility of redemption in that. For the world, I mean. The possibility of hope.

One Good Turn takes place two years after Case Histories, Jackson in Edinburgh where his girlfriend Julia has a show at the summer festival. “A Jolly Good Murder Mystery” is the novel’s subtitle, and there is a rollickingness to the novel, whose characters include a writer of middling detective fiction. One Good Turn is self-aware, possibly winking. And its many strands are slightly absurd, but their weaving is masterful, a much richer tapestry than Case Histories. The confident way it all holds together.

And then When Will There Be Good News?, which is a literary masterpiece, I think, the best book of them all, and they’re all extraordinarily good. Featuring Reggie Chase, who appears again in Big Sky—but I didn’t remember her. Unfathomable too, because she’s basically unforgettable. A teenage genius from the wrong side of the tracks, almost no one to guide her. A devastating train crash, and it’s Reggie who saves Jackson’s life, forever in his debt—and doubly, because he writes her a cheque that bounces when his wife disappears with his entire fortune. And we meet Louise Monroe again, the police inspector from the previous book, and this all is a book about trauma, and violence, everyday brutality, domestic violence—and Atkinson even makes it funny, like all the books, which still doesn’t undermine the enormity of the message. Humour is how you make it bearable, I guess, and it helps that life is so absurd.

To reread a series of books so concerned with history is interesting, and the series also shows the changes occurring during the years they were written and take place. I will never forget my first trip to the UK post 2008 economic crash, how different it was, all the holes in the streets where the Woolworths had been—and Started Early, Took My Dog is situated in the wreckage of that moment, another kind of trauma. “The world was going to hell in a handcart…” The sex workers who used to do the job because of poverty, but now it’s because of addiction. Started Early… moves between the 1970s and 2010, and it’s a strange kind of nostalgia. It wasn’t that things were better then, but they were different, that’s all. This is a novel that’s about the fraying of the social fabric, but that’s not necessarily a contemporary story, and might be classic after all. There also have always been bad guys, and some things never change, which is why Jackson Brodie knows as much as as he does—when he’s not walking headlong into disaster.

(This novel is also the way I discovered Betty‘s, and made our first visit to the one in Ilkley in 2011, on the recommendation of Jackson Brodie himself… “If Britain had been run by Betty’s, it would never have succombed to economic Armageddon.”)

And then last week I reread Big Sky, not even a year after the first time, and I knew Reggie Chase this time, now a police inspector herself. And I loved it, just like I loved all of them—its furious, unabashed politics and strong sense of justice. And I loved too the way a few strands in the book that do not quite get tied up, which could suggest that perhaps there are more Jackson Brodie novels to come. A reader can hope…

Or else it’s just that these books, while precise in their composition, are also meant to mimic reality—rough, ragged, and untidy, but sometimes so sublime.

One thought on “Rereading Jackson Brodie in the Spring of 2020”

  1. Jilanna says:

    I love, love, love this post! I have read all of the Jackson Brodie books except Big Sky (my copy is backordered). It’s a treat to read this post and recognize the other books and know that you’ve captured the spirit of them — and all of Kate Atkinson’s work — without giving anything away.

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