Kate Atkinson is one of the most prolific of those British literary shape-shifters. Her non-mystery novels, like the award-winning 1995 book “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” stand shoulder-to-shoulder alongside her suspense series starring private eye Jackson Brody. Atkinson’s two most recent novels, “Life After Life” and “A God in Ruins,” span the two world wars and owe a lot to the conventions of historical fiction.
Now, in “Transcription,” Atkinson has wandered out from the preserves of “high art” once again by writing a traditional spy story. And I do mean traditional, as in double agents, disappearing ink, corpses spirited away in rugs, recording devices hidden in walls and a plucky young heroine who knows how to use a pistol — and even a sharp knitting needle — when backed into a tight corner.
Juliet Armstrong is an 18-year-old file clerk in 1940 when fate, in the form of the British Security Service, otherwise known as MI5, plucks her out of her routine and throws her into the dodgy world of “counter-subversion.” Together with a couple of recording engineers, Juliet spends days crouched over listening devices in a London flat, eavesdropping on conversations that her boss, Godfrey Toby, conducts next door with his visitors, all of whom are “fifth columnists,” or British Nazi sympathizers. Since Juliet’s job is to transcribe these conversations, some of the humor in “Transcription” derives from her frustrations in trying to make sense of what’s often a mass of mumbles. She’s a bit concerned that the outcome of the war may well turn on whether one of Toby’s guests is “thinking of taking a train . . . or cleaning the drains.”
Atkinson’s many fans know better than to expect a straightforward chronological narrative from her; instead, she prefers to jump around, intensifying the poignancy of her characters’ lives by giving her readers godlike glimpses of how they will eventually turn out. The very first page of “Transcription” opens on Juliet’s death in 1981 — a death we witness with different emotions when we return to the scene briefly at the very end of the novel. Scattered in between are long sections of the story set in 1950, when Juliet is employed by BBC radio as a producer of educational programs with titles such as the “Explorers’ Club” and “English for the Under-Nines.” But all is not well in Juliet’s placid and somewhat dull postwar world. She senses she is being followed: A man with a pockmarked face and a woman wearing a headscarf garishly decorated with parrots keep popping up. Adding to the weirdness are those anonymous notes that someone has begun dropping off at the BBC. Addressed to Juliet, the notes warn that “you will pay for what you did.”
What Juliet “did” during the war — and beyond — makes for suspenseful reading, and Atkinson clearly has fun resuscitating classic white-knuckle moments from old espionage novels and films. Thus, Juliet is followed in a pea-soup London fog by someone “tap-tap-tapping” their cane closer and closer; in another scene set at an aristocratic cocktail party, she sneaks into a library to photograph incriminating documents when — gasp! — a man moves out of the shadows toward her. As in the best spy stories, no one and nothing are as they seem. Not even our intrepid Julia is an open book.
Espionage is a grim business, but Atkinson’s wry style imbues the world of “Transcription” with moments of brisk cheer, as if Ian Fleming had been cross-pollinated with Barbara Pym. Take, for instance, this description of Juliet eating her lunch outside in the chill London spring:
“The sandwich was no comfort, it was a pale limp thing. . . . Recently she had bought a new book, by Elizabeth David — A Book of Mediterranean Food. A hopeful purchase. The only olive oil she could find was sold in her local chemist in a small bottle. ‘For softening earwax?’ he asked when she handed over her money. There was a better life somewhere, Juliet supposed, if only she could be bothered to find it.”
Juliet does indeed find a kind of “better life somewhere,” but it’s one that readers would never wish on her. That ultimate paradox is a testament to Atkinson’s inventiveness as a storyteller, as well as to her powers for creating characters too real for comfort.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
By Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown. 339 pp. $28