When Will There Be Good News?

By KATE ATKINSON

The truly literary thriller — or the truly chilling, thrilling literary novel — often sometimes seems a bit like Bigfoot: many claim to have seen it, and others claim to possess evidence of it, but on closer inspection it’s much more likely to be an errant grizzly or a guy in a gorilla suit. But York-born author Kate Atkinson comes about as close to the creature as admirers of artful, incisive prose would want to get with When Will There Be Good News?, an intricately plotted and suspenseful tale of past crimes and present dangers.

Atkinson’s first novel, the Whitbread-winning Behind the Scenes of the Museum, was a comic, poignant saga of a middle-class Yorkshire family; her third, Emotionally Weird, was a vibrant but self-consciously tricky exploration of the mother-daughter bond. And then, in an authorial migration undertaken by numerous contemporary literary authors — including, more recently, the Man Booker winner John Banville — Atkinson crossed the channel to crime.

While Banville took on the nom de plume Benjamin Black and generally checked his philosophical musings at the door, Atkinson carried her name and preoccupations with her into her detective novels. She is fascinated by fate, loss, family, and how we’re shaped by forces (often malevolent) beyond our control. Like many of Graham Greene’s self-styled “entertainments,” Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels (the others are Case Histories and One Good Turn) offer fine suspense and even finer insights into human psychology.

Like a more conventional mystery, though, When Will There Be Good News? opens with bloodshed, as most of the Mason family — mother Gabrielle, eight-year-old Jessica, and infant Joseph — are stabbed to death on a country lane by a psychopathic stranger named Andrew Decker. Six-year-old Joanna is later discovered hiding in a wheat field, unharmed.

Atkinson then jumps 30 years to present-day York, where we meet up with Jackson — ex-soldier, ex-police inspector, and ex-private investigator, now a rich man thanks to a former client’s will but toiling as a security consultant because “a man couldn’t lie idle” — lurking about a village green, watching a child he believes to be his. After smoothly securing a DNA sample in the form of a hair from the boy’s head, Jackson departs, only to lose himself in the Yorkshire countryside and wind up on a train not to London, his intended destination, but to Edinburgh.

Which is where Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe, Brodie’s almost-lover in One Good Turn, is busy telling Joanna, now a successful doctor with a Glaswegian husband and a beloved baby boy, about Andrew Decker’s impending release and the probable media frenzy to follow it. Louise, who’s recently married but already wondering if matrimonial bliss actually suits her, finds Joanna fascinating. She’s “the woman I never became,” Louise notes with typical self-criticism, “the good survivor, the good wife, the good mother.”

Joanna also functions as surrogate family for 16-year-old orphan Reggie Chase, the baby’s nanny. And it’s plucky, winning Reggie, a heroine of Dickensian charm, who weaves the threads of this novel together, with no small help from the guiding hand of chance. “Coincidence,” Nabokov once wrote, “is a pimp and a cardsharper in ordinary fiction.” It cheats, in other words: it wants something for nothing. But Atkinson, whose detective novels gleefully traffic in small-world acts of fate and fluke, does not write ordinary fiction, and thus the reader is quite content to believe that Louise would learn of Joanna’s sudden disappearance when she returns to the Hunter household to question Joanna’s husband about a suspicious fire in an arcade he owned. Or that Reggie, eating violet creams and watching Coronation Street at her tutor’s house near the railroad tracks, would be one of the first people on the scene at a horrifying train wreck caused by the very same tutor — or that, amid the carnage, she would come upon, and save the life of, the gravely injured Jackson Brodie.

What makes these chance intersections more piquant than implausible is the reader’s sense that despite such connections between characters, loneliness is the true tie that binds them. Each is haunted by the dead, be they family or the innocent victims of crime. Each is alone, even inside a marriage or a borrowed family. “You belong to me,” Reggie informs Jackson after he wakes from his coma. While such insistence hardly nets the girl a father figure, it does persuade him to help Reggie in her search for Joanna.

Reggie also enlists Louise’s aid, though the detective is skeptical that Joanna needs it; after all, she’d mentioned she might like to get away for a few days. And thus it is that Jackson and Louise — “two people who had missed each other, sailed right past in the night and into different harbors” — are reunited on a quest. The novel, which began somewhat leisurely, picks up speed, though it never sacrifices backstory and astute rumination for a whodunit plot. Additional storylines about Reggie’s no-good brother and Jackson’s beautiful younger wife (“What does this paragon amongst women see in you exactly?” his ex-girlfriend wonders. “Apart from the money, of course”) add tension, not to mention a sense that various complications will remain in place long after the mystery of Joanna’s whereabouts has been solved.

Atkinson weaves literary references throughout, from playful riffs on Mrs. Dalloway to quick salutes to Descartes, Poe, and Austen, among others. Louise and Jackson share a penchant for quoting — psalms, lyrics, poems — while Reggie’s thoughts often take an etymological slant (“Carnage from the Latin caro, carnis, meaning ‘flesh.’ “) Such attention to the bookish feels natural rather than forced, as the characters employ their mnemonic gifts to reassure them in moments of difficulty.

“She is dead; and all which die, to their first elements resolve,” thinks Reggie, summoning Donne upon the death of her tutor. But real resolution is hard to come by, even if doctors may be found and criminals get their due. We are all orphans eventually, Atkinson reminds us, and how each of us can come to terms with that fact is one of life’s most enduring mysteries.

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