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Kate Atkinson’s dreamy detective returns, and his first case is a tangle of sex and lies

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Jackson Brodie is back, and he’s still kind of a dreamboat.

The handsome investigator whom Kate Atkinson introduced in 2004’s “Case Histories,” played by Jason Isaacs on the BBC series, hasn’t appeared in a new book since 2011. If you haven’t met him yet, this is a fine place to start.

In “Big Sky,” the former military man and police inspector has moved to the U.K.’s northeastern coast, where he’s set up his small agency. It’s an unassuming venture: “He tried not to use the term ‘private detective’ — it had too many glamorous connotations (or sleazy, depending on how you looked at it). Too Chandleresque. It raised people’s expectations,” Atkinson writes.

Is she waving off critics? Although this book is definitely a mystery, its structure is unusual. Jackson is barely working. Instead, he’s focused on intermittently parenting his 13-year-old son, Nathan; hoping his ex, the actress Julia, will rekindle their romance; and musing on the passage of time.

The intertwined threads awaiting Jackson’s attention involve a sex-trafficking ring and an old sexual abuse scandal that echoes the true story of Jimmy Savile, the beloved British entertainer who was revealed, after his death, to have been a rampant sexual predator. The first crime doesn’t appear for more than 100 pages.

There will, eventually, be blood. But the richness of this novel comes in spending time with the kaleidoscope of characters who spin together in the whirlwind ending.

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Chief among these is Crystal, the perfectly groomed trophy wife of a successful local businessman. Sure, she named their daughter Candy and dresses her in a parade of Disney princess outfits; yes, she feeds her husband exactly the traditional food he wants. But she’s privately eating healthy and learning school lessons from Harry, her teenage stepson.

Harry, unlike his father, is a sensitive soul. (He may take after his mother, who died when she tumbled off a cliff.) He reads a lot and works backstage during the summer at a variety theater with a third-rate show. He gets to know a cross-dressing singer, who is kind, and the headliner, a comedian who’s even more unpleasant offstage than on. Harry also tries to tell jokes, but he’s such a hopeless nerd that they always involve cheese.

What connection do they have to young policewomen Ronnie and Reggie? Very little. But they too orbit this universe, asking the same routine questions about the old case so many times that they become a refrain the reader can recite. More than once, the duo wind up in the middle of the action; these two tiny, novice look-alike cops are underestimated by everyone.

Meanwhile, we follow the descent of soon-to-be-divorced Vince, a hapless everyman with vague connections to Crystal’s husband. As the book progresses, Vince’s life goes from bad to worse. It might be hard to relate to Vince’s choices, but if you’ve ever been the least cool person in a group of friends, you’ll feel his pain.

Atkinson is so skilled at getting inside people’s heads that when she introduces a new character, it’s almost impossible to not feel at least a little sympathy for the person. As terrible as I feel typing this, it even holds true for one of the human traffickers, who conceals his enormous profits from his domineering wife so he can surprise her with retirement in paradise.

Where is Jackson in all of this? At times, he seems like he’s serving more as a frame to the story than its driver. Now long retired and removed from his home base of Edinburgh, Scotland, he’s not able to leverage the once helpful former-policeman connections. Readers familiar with Atkinson’s earlier mysteries will recognize Reggie faster than Jackson does, despite the fact that she once saved his life. And when he’s hired by Crystal, he does such a poor job that she refuses to pay him (using language I can’t share here). But in fact, Jackson is on it — he’s just not putting himself at the center of it.

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Atkinson has returned to Jackson Brodie after a long break (during which she published the remarkable “Life After Life” and its sequels), and she seems to be having fun with it. Past books in the series have been criticized for leaning too heavily on coincidence, pointing to Jackson’s adage “a coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen” as an easy way out. That line appears here so many times that it’s clear the author is not a victim of coincidence but using it to her best advantage.

Jackson appears to be aging basically in real time, like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, whose latest books have included another younger detective. With Ronnie and Reggie, Atkinson has set up that possibility here. And she’s also left a gap in which any number of next books might double back and fill in earlier chronicles of Jackson Brodie.

What I’m fairly certain of is, this story will continue, someday. The gangbuster ending flings a pile of spinning plates in the air. They could be picked up in a swath of new directions, including Jackson or not.

But I hope he comes back. He’s still the empathetic, flawed, country-music-listening detective we first fell for.

Carolyn Kellogg is the former books editor of the L.A. Times.

By Kate Atkinson

Little, Brown. 286 pp. $28

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