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.
Emily Chenoweth is the former fiction editor of Publishers Weekly. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Bookforum, and People, among other publications. Her first novel will be published by Random House in early 2009.
Thank God, in these hard times, for a cheerful, ghoulish, gory book like this…This is a grand mystery, with plenty of misdeeds and overwrought coincidences, as well as quotes from Scots ballads, old nursery rhymes and the classics, so you can feel edified while being creeped outas you wait for that happy ending we all long for, and think we deserve.
The Washington Post
…[a] deliciously underhanded, echo-filled novel…Although When Will There Be Good News? has been expertly rendered by Ms. Atkinson, it is a reminder that she is too versatile a writer to stick with any one incarnation. It is very much to be hoped that she keeps this gratifying series going. But she has already shown herself capable of creating a varied body of work, starting with her debut novel, the Whitbread prizewinner Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Good as it is, this latest Brodie book nearly bursts at the seams. It shows off an imagination so active that When Will There Be Good News? can barely contain it.
The New York Times
The latest Atkinson mystery finds detective Jackson Brodie back in the English countryside, where he becomes caught up in a missing person's case that forces old memories and past mistakes to the forefront of his mind. Told from a mainly female perspective, both that of detective chief Louise Monroe and victim Joanna Mason, the story is delivered perfectly by narrator Ellen Archer. She is fully and completely aware of the undertones in most of her characters' voices, and when she captures them, she creates a stirring experience for her audience. As Brodie, Archer is slightly less effective, only because she opts for a straightforward, dry tone that is less flashy. But her portrayal of Reggie, a 16-year-old Scottish boy, is amazingly astute and shaded. A Little, Brown hardcover (Reviews, July 28). (Sept.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In what may be the last Jackson Brody mystery-following best sellers Case Histories and One Good Turn, both also from Hachette Audio-Atkinson (www.kateatkinson.co.uk) deftly weaves together a series of tragic events spanning 30 years, all the while maintaining the skills that won her the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year Award for her debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Audie® Award winner Ellen Archer (For the Love of a Dog) captures each character nuance. Highly recommended. [The Little, Brown hc received a starred review, LJ8/08.-Ed.]
A third appearance for former police investigator and private detective Jackson Brodie in this psychologically astute thriller from Atkinson (One Good Turn, 2006, etc.). In the emotional opening, six-year-old Joanna witnesses the brutal killing of her mother and siblings by a knife-wielding madman in the British countryside. Thirty years later, Joanna, now a doctor in Edinburgh, has become a mother herself. Her baby's nanny is 16-year-old Reggie. To Reggie, whose own mother recently died in a freak accident, Joanna and her baby represent an ideal family (Joanna's husband, a struggling businessman, seems only a vaguely irritating irrelevance to fatherless Reggie). When prickly, self-loathing policewoman Louise Monroe comes to call on lovely, warm-hearted Joanna, watchful Reggie (think Ellen Page from Juno with a Scottish brogue) is struck by the similarities between the two well-dressed professional women. Actually Louise has come to warn Joanna that her family's murderer is being released from prison. Louise chooses not to mention her other reason for visiting, a suspicion that Joanna's husband torched one of his failing businesses for the insurance. Jackson's connection to the others is revealed gradually: Jackson and Louise were once almost lovers although they since married others; as a youth Jackson joined the search party that found Joanna hiding in a field following the murders. Rattled after visiting a child he suspects he fathered despite the mother's denials, Jackson mistakenly takes the train to Edinburgh instead of London. When the train crashes near the house where Reggie happens to be watching TV, she gives him CPR. Soon afterward, Joanna's husband tells Reggie that Joannahas gone away unexpectedly. Suspecting foul play, Reggie involves Louise and Jackson in individual searches for the missing woman and baby. While Louise and Jackson face truths about themselves and their relationships, Joanna's survival instincts are once more put to the ultimate test. Like the most riveting BBC mystery, in which understated, deadpan intelligence illuminates characters' inner lives within a convoluted plot.
As a reader, I was charmed. As a novelist, I was staggered by Kate Atkinson's narrative wizardry.
"Uncategorizable, unputdownable, Atkinson's books are like Agatha Christie mysteries that have burst at the seams-they're taut and intricate but also messy and funny and full of life."
The novel satisfies the question in its own title. The answer is: Right here and right now.
Good news lies on every page of this meticulously plotted and affecting thriller.
Stephen King - Entertainment Weekly
"As a reader, I was charmed. As a novelist, I was staggered by Kate Atkinson's narrative wizardry."
"Uncategorizable, unputdownable, Atkinson's books are like Agatha Christie mysteries that have burst at the seams-they're taut and intricate but also messy and funny and full of life."
Laura Miller - Salon
"The novel satisfies the question in its own title. The answer is: Right here and right now."
Janet Maslin - New York Times
"Expertly rendered...It is very much to be hoped that Kate Atkinson keeps this gratifying series going."
Connie Ogle - Miami Herald
"Good news lies on every page of this meticulously plotted and affecting thriller."
From the Publisher
“In Atkinson’s stellar third novel to feature ex-cop turned PI Jackson Brodie (after One Good Turn), unrelated characters and plot lines collide with momentous results… A lesser author would buckle under so many story lines, but Atkinson juggles them brilliantly, simultaneously tying up loose ends from Turn and opening new doors for further Brodie misadventures.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“READER, SUSPEND DISBELIEF. Find something high-flown, and attach with care, then send your critical faculties hurtling. Kate Atkinson’s latest (darkest? bloodiest? most free-wheeling?) slice of make-belief has attitude and altitude in abundance. It pushes its luck in taking coincidence and outlandishness to levels of sheer unadulterated chutzpah, and by its stomach-curdling ending, it’s so accelerated that you’re waiting for the wheels to come off. They don’t.”
“It doesn’t really matter in which genre Atkinson chooses to write. Her subject is always the irrecoverable loss of love and how best to continue living once you have glumly recognised that that was what the world was like, things improved but they didn’t get better. Her gift is presenting this unnerving and subversive philosophy as a dazzling form of entertainment.”
—The Sunday Times
“Kate Atkinson is an absolute must-read. I love everything she writes.”
“Atkinson has turned the corner from writing wonderfully rich literary novels with mysteries at their core to writing mysteries with rich literary style.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Atkinson’s novel is like something her detective might drink in the wee hours after knocking around the docks, something straight up with a twist.”
—The Globe and Mail
“The most fun I’ve had with a novel this year.”
“Clever, wry and highly readable. . . . Almost every coincidence is delicious and not a little comic.”
“An absolute joy to read.”
—The Guardian (UK)
“A remarkable feat of storytelling bravado.”
“An engrossing, enjoyable, complex novel packed with intriguing characters, vividly imagined scenes and a compelling plot.”
—Times Literary Supplement (UK)
“Compelling from the start”
“Atkinson unravels the plot with dexterity and insightful aplomb”
“Atkinson’s writing is charming, and her style and wit always a delight”
“...a brilliantly observed drama on the nature of fate, love and memory”
“The opening chapter of Kate Atkinson’s latest book is one of the finest pieces of suspense literature you will read this year”
—The London Lite
“Superb writing and accomplished plots”
“Unconventional and thrilling crime fiction at its best”
“An exhilarating jigsaw of a novel”
—Woman and Home
“…she stitches the seeming discordant plots into one big harmonious patchwork, where every stitch is a careful stitch and every patch operates both on its own merits and as part of the whole”
—Scotland on Sunday
“…it’s the kind of wonderful novel that simultaneously grips and transports you”
“The novel grips, excites, moves, amuses and will have you racing through the pages”
—Waterstone’s Books Quarterly
“This is a perceptive glimpse into the legacy of the real victims – those left behind when their loved ones are taken from them”
“The third, the best, and hopefully not the last Atkinson novel featuring private eye Jackson Brodie.”
— Stephen King, Entertainment Weekly
“Brilliant…. Atkinson’s detective novels are masterworks of character-driven plots and leisurely observation. But they are primarily triumphs … of tone: sardonic, faithless, and dark as the inside of a cow. As a reader, you might come for the mystery, but you’ll return for the prose.”
— Andrew Pyper, The Globe and Mail
“Deliciously underhanded…. It is very much to be hoped that she keeps this gratifying series going.”
— The New York Times
Read an Excerpt
In the Past
The heat rising up from the tarmac seemed to get trapped between the thick hedges that towered above their heads like battlements.
‘Oppressive,’ their mother said. They felt trapped too. ‘Like the maze at Hampton Court,’ their mother said. ‘Remember?’
‘Yes,’ Jessica said.
‘No,’ Joanna said.
‘You were just a baby,’ their mother said to Joanna. ‘Like Joseph is now.’ Jessica was eight, Joanna was six.
The little road (they always called it ‘the lane’) snaked one way and then another, so that you couldn’t see anything ahead of you. They had to keep the dog on the lead and stay close to the hedges in case a car ‘came out of nowhere’. Jessica was the eldest so she was the one who always got to hold the dog’s lead. She spent a lot of her time training the dog, ‘Heel!’ and ‘Sit!’ and ‘Come!’ Their mother said she wished Jessica was as obedient as the dog. Jessica was always the one who was in charge. Their mother said to Joanna, ‘It’s all right to have a mind of your own, you know. You should stick up for yourself, think for yourself,’ but Joanna didn’t want to think for herself.
The bus dropped them on the big road and then carried on to somewhere else. It was ‘a palaver’ getting them all off the bus. Their mother held Joseph under one arm like a parcel and with her other hand she struggled to open out his newfangled buggy. Jessica and Joanna shared the job of lifting the shopping off the bus. The dog saw to himself. ‘No one ever helps,’ their mother said. ‘Have you noticed that?’ They had.
‘Your father’s country fucking idyll,’ their mother said as the bus drove away in a blue haze of fumes and heat. ‘Don’t you swear,’ she added automatically, ‘I’m the only person allowed to swear.’
They didn’t have a car any more. Their father (‘the bastard’) had driven away in it. Their father wrote books, ‘novels’. He had taken one down from a shelf and shown it to Joanna, pointed out his photograph on the back cover and said, ‘That’s me,’ but she wasn’t allowed to read it, even though she was already a good reader. (‘Not yet, one day. I write for grown-ups, I’m afraid,’ he laughed. ‘There’s stuff in there, well . . .’)
Their father was called Howard Mason and their mother’s name was Gabrielle. Sometimes people got excited and smiled at their father and said, ‘Are you the Howard Mason?’ (Or sometimes, not smiling, ‘that Howard Mason’ which was different although Joanna wasn’t sure how.)
Their mother said that their father had uprooted them and planted them ‘in the middle of nowhere’. ‘Or Devon, as it’s commonly known,’ their father said. He said he needed ‘space to write’ and it would be good for all of them to be ‘in touch with nature’. ‘No television!’ he said as if that was something they would enjoy.
Joanna still missed her school and her friends and Wonder Woman and a house on a street that you could walk along to a shop where you could buy the Beano and a liquorice stick and choose from three different kinds of apples instead of having to walk along a lane and a road and take two buses and then do the same thing all over again in reverse.
The first thing their father did when they moved to Devon was to buy six red hens and a hive full of bees. He spent all autumn digging over the garden at the front of the house so it would be ‘ready for spring’. When it rained the garden turned to mud and the mud was trailed everywhere in the house, they even found it on their bed sheets. When winter came a fox ate the hens without them ever having laid an egg and the bees all froze to death which was unheard of, according to their father, who said he was going to put all those things in the book (‘the novel’) he was writing. ‘So that’s all right then,’ their mother said.
Their father wrote at the kitchen table because it was the only room in the house that was even the slightest bit warm, thanks to the huge temperamental Aga that their mother said was ‘going to be the death of her’. ‘I should be so lucky,’ their father muttered. (His book wasn’t going well.) They were all under his feet, even their mother.
‘You smell of soot,’ their father said to their mother. ‘And cabbage and milk.’
‘And you smell of failure,’ their mother said.
Their mother used to smell of all kinds of interesting things, paint and turpentine and tobacco and the Je Reviens perfume that their father had been buying for her since she was seventeen years old and ‘a Catholic schoolgirl’, and which meant ‘I will return’ and was a message to her. Their mother was ‘a beauty’ according to their father but their mother said she was ‘a painter’, although she hadn’t painted anything since they moved to Devon. ‘No room for two creative talents in a marriage,’ she said in that way she had, raising her eyebrows while inhaling smoke from the little brown cigarillos she smoked. She pronounced it thigariyo like a foreigner. When she was a child she had lived in faraway places that she would take them to one day. She was warm-blooded, she said, not like their father who was a reptile. Their mother was clever and funny and surprising and nothing like their friends’ mothers. ‘Exotic’, their father said.
The argument about who smelled of what wasn’t over apparently because their mother picked up a blue-and-white-striped jug from the dresser and threw it at their father, who was sitting at the table staring at his typewriter as if the words would write themselves if he was patient enough. The jug hit him on the side of the head and he roared with shock and pain. With a speed that Joanna could only admire, Jessica plucked Joseph out of his high-chair and said, ‘Come on,’ to Joanna and they went upstairs where they tickled Joseph on the double bed that Joanna and Jessica shared. There was no heating in the bedroom and the bed was piled high with eiderdowns and old coats that belonged to their mother. Eventually all three of them fell asleep, nestled in the mingled scents of damp and mothballs and Je Reviens.
When Joanna woke up she found Jessica propped up on pillows, wearing gloves and a pair of earmuffs and one of the coats from the bed, drowning her like a tent. She was reading a book by torchlight.
‘Electricity’s off,’ she said, without taking her eyes off the book. On the other side of the wall they could hear the horrible animal noises that meant their parents were friends again. Jessica silently offered Joanna the earmuffs so that she didn’t have to listen.
When the spring finally came, instead of planting a vegetable garden, their father went back to London and lived with ‘his other woman’ — which was a big surprise to Joanna and Jessica, although not apparently to their mother. Their father’s other woman was called Martina — the poet — their mother spat out the word as if it was a curse. Their mother called the other woman (the poet) names that were so bad that when they dared to whisper them (bitch-cunt-whore-poet) to each other beneath the bedclothes they were like poison in the air.
Although now there was only one person in the marriage, their mother still didn’t paint.
They made their way along the lane in single file, ‘Indian file’, their mother said. The plastic shopping bags hung from the handles of the buggy and if their mother let go it tipped backwards on to the ground.
‘We must look like refugees,’ she said. ‘Yet we are not downhearted,’ she added cheerfully. They were going to move back into town at the end of the summer, ‘in time for school’.
‘Thank God,’ Jessica said, in just the same way their mother said it.
Joseph was asleep in the buggy, his mouth open, a faint rattle from his chest because he couldn’t shake off a summer cold. He was so hot that their mother stripped him to his nappy and Jessica blew on the thin ribs of his little body to cool him down until their mother said, ‘Don’t wake him.’
There was the tang of manure in the air and the smell of the musty grass and the cow parsley got inside Joanna’s nose and made her sneeze.
‘Bad luck,’ her mother said, ‘you’re the one that got my allergies.’ Their mother’s dark hair and pale skin went to her ‘beautiful boy’ Joseph, her green eyes and her ‘painter’s hands’ went to Jessica. Joanna got the allergies. Bad luck. Joseph and their mother shared a birthday too although Joseph hadn’t had any birthdays yet. In another week it would be his first. ‘That’s a special birthday,’ their mother said. Joanna thought all birthdays were special.
Their mother was wearing Joanna’s favourite dress, blue with a pattern of red strawberries. Their mother said it was old and next summer she would cut it up and make something for Joanna out of it if she liked. Joanna could see the muscles on her mother’s tanned legs moving as she pushed the buggy up the hill. She was strong. Their father said she was ‘fierce’. Joanna liked that word. Jessica was fierce too. Joseph was nothing yet. He was just a baby, fat and happy. He liked oatmeal and mashed banana, and the mobile of little paper birds their mother had made for him that hung above his cot. He liked being tickled by his sisters. He liked his sisters.
Joanna could feel sweat running down her back. Her worn cotton dress was sticking to her skin. The dress was a hand-me-down from Jessica. ‘Poor but honest,’ their mother laughed. Her big mouth turned down when she laughed so that she never seemed happy even when she was. Everything Joanna had was handed down from Jessica. It was as if without Jessica there would be no Joanna. Joanna filled the spaces Jessica left behind as she moved on.
Invisible on the other side of the hedge, a cow made a bellowing noise that made her jump. ‘It’s just a cow,’ her mother said.
‘Red Devons,’ Jessica said, even though she couldn’t see them. How did she know? She knew the names of everything, seen and unseen. Joanna wondered if she would ever know all the things that Jessica knew.
After you had walked along the lane for a while you came to a wooden gate with a stile. They couldn’t get the buggy through the stile so they had to open the gate. Jessica let the dog off the lead and he scrambled up and over the gate in the way that Jessica had taught him. The sign on the gate said ‘Please Close The Gate Behind You’. Jessica always ran ahead and undid the clasp and then they both pushed at the gate and swung on it as it opened. Their mother had to heave and shove at the buggy because all the winter mud had dried into deep awkward ruts that the wheels got stuck in. They swung on the gate to close it as well. Jessica checked the clasp. Sometimes they hung upside down on the gate and their hair reached the ground like brooms sweeping the dust and their mother said, ‘Don’t do that.’
The track bordered a field. ‘Wheat,’ Jessica said. The wheat was very high although not as high as the hedges in the lane. ‘They’ll be harvesting soon,’ their mother said. ‘Cutting it down,’ she added, for Joanna’s benefit. ‘Then we’ll sneeze and wheeze, the pair of us.’ Joanna was already wheezing, she could hear the breath whistling in her chest.
The dog ran into the field and disappeared. A moment later he sprang out of the wheat again. Last week Joanna had followed the dog into the field and got lost and no one could find her for a long time. She could hear them calling her, moving further and further away. Nobody heard her when she called back. The dog found her.
They stopped halfway along and sat down on the grass at the side of the track, under the shady trees. Their mother took the plastic carrier bags off the buggy handles and from one of the bags brought out some little cartons of orange juice and a box of chocolate finger biscuits. The orange juice was warm and the chocolate biscuits had melted together. They gave some of the biscuits to the dog. Their mother laughed with her down-turned mouth and said, ‘God, what a mess,’ and looked in the baby-bag and found wipes for their chocolate-covered hands and mouths. When they lived in London they used to have proper picnics, loading up the boot of the car with a big wicker basket that had belonged to their mother’s mother who was rich but dead (which was just as well apparently because it meant she didn’t have to see her only daughter married to a selfish, fornicating waster). If their grandmother was rich why didn’t they have any money? ‘I eloped,’ their mother said. ‘I ran away to marry your father. It was very romantic. At the time. We had nothing.’
‘You had the picnic basket,’ Jessica said and their mother laughed and said, ‘You can be very funny, you know,’ and Jessica said, ‘I do know.’