Jackson Brodie first appeared in Kate Atkinson’s 2004 novel “Case Histories,” already life-battered and world-weary. Ex-army (joined at 16), ex-police (12 years in the Cambridge Constabulary) and ex-marriage (to Josie, to Tessa), the private investigator even then felt “too sad and too old” for the job. The ceaseless job, that is, of finding — never mind saving – girls who had disappeared. But in three subsequent novels – One Good Turn (2006), When Will There Be Good News (2008), Started Early, Took My Dog (2011) – and now in Big Sky, Brodie has no choice in the matter. Just hearing the chimes of an ice-cream van starts him thinking “about all the lost girls over the years. The ones lost in woods, on railway lines, in back alleys, in cellars, in parks, in ditches by the side of the road, in their own homes.” Not to mention his murdered sister. And in Atkinson’s new novel, set in the north of England, girls continue to vanish as victims of a trafficking scheme that is tangentially linked to a decades-old pedophile ring.
“It was an ever-expanding jigsaw,” a police officer observes of the cold case, “one with a lot of missing pieces as it dialed all the way back to the seventies and many of the people mentioned were dead.” A survivor, though, has decided to talk while a dying perpetrator is about to name names. Big names. And that ice-cream van, by the way, is not just an ice-cream van — nothing is ever just anything in Atkinson’s fiction – but a piece of the puzzle floating past Brodie. Such coincidences act as slow-burning fuses throughout the novel. A wife, for example, learns of her husband’s evildoing and wonders “if for a moment in time in those bad old days their paths had crossed, slipping past each other like sliding doors.” Which is how Atkinson’s layered narrative proceeds, elegantly and relentlessly, its intersecting viewpoints gliding over one another in a plot as elaborately sinuous as it is geometrically precise. You could, indeed, draw a map of all the intersections; but you won’t, because this story holds you too close.
It begins in a trailer in a field on the English coast with a man fishing for women. Posing as Mark Price calling from a nonexistent London office he interviews via Skype his newest catch, two Polish sisters thrilled to be recruited to work in England’s best hotels. Their travel arrangements finalized, “Price” turns off “Ambient Office Sounds,” locks up and goes home to his charming wife, leaving behind a space vibrating with dread: Atkinson has no equal when it comes to dread. Next we meet Brodie at a boating park with his teenage son Nathan. He is on the job, tracking a cheating boyfriend, a comedown from police work. Then he notices a child alone, climbing into a passing car. She lodges in Brodie’s consciousness and will appear fleetingly again, a fragment in Atkinson’s intricate mosaic. The centerpiece of which is Crystal Holroyd.
“Crystal was hovering around thirty-five years old and it took a lot of work to stay in this holding pattern,” Atkinson writes, “She was a construction made from artificial materials – the acrylic nails, the silicone breasts, the polymer eyelashes.” Crystal’s heart and brain, however, are all her own. Married to a rich trucking contractor, she is dedicated to her own survival, the protection of her toddler daughter and teenage stepson, and the erasure of a horrible past. “Not even a hamster,” she replies when asked about childhood pets, “Lots of rats around, though.” And plenty still around, Crystal realizes when her knowledge of past crimes prompts death threats and when she learns the true nature of her husband’s business. But Crystal is prepared, always has been. Resourceful, courageous and underestimated, she recalls such irresistible Atkinson characters as Tracy Waterhouse (“Nobody ever said love was easy. Well, they did, but they were idiots”) in the previous Brodie novel and Reggie Chase in When Will There Be Good News? The same Reggie who is now Detective Constable Chase. Assigned to investigate the old sex crime case, Reggie stumbles onto the trafficking network run by respectable golfing buddies confident of their cover. After all, “who was going to suspect a bunch of middle-aged white blokes in a seaside town?” Reggie, in fact – a woman who has seen everything and whose eye misses nothing. “A lasagna was sitting cling-filmed on the counter, waiting to go into the Aga,” she observes in a suspect’s kitchen, “Of course there was an Aga, you would expect nothing less of a woman like this.”
Atkinson’s deadpan wit is sharp as ever here, (“The bus said Middlesborough on the front but it may as well have said The First Circle of Hell”), as is her depiction of England, from its seaside esplanades to its human cesspits. Most remarkable of all, however, is her enduring ability to place us inside the consciousness of each character as she conducts us through their overlapping lives. Readers new to Atkinson, always to be envied, will be lured back by Big Sky to her earlier novels. The rest of us may find ourselves accompanying them, as Crystal might say, “for old times’ sake.”