Sunday, January 18, 2009

This Is the Good News, Right Here

I managed recently to get away from my brooding over the current economic crisis and my usual responsibilities by taking some time off with my family in Dublin, Ireland. I figured it was also an ideal opportunity to catch on my reading. Naturally, my wife complained when I packed 60 or so books into a couple of hold-alls. “Books aren’t like tinned beans,” I blurted out, trying to defend the space those hold-alls were taking up in our luggage. “I need to take a large selection, because I like to ensure that I have plenty to chose from, and what I select depends on my mood.” My wife groaned, but since I would be the one loading the car, she grudgingly accepted my reasoning.

Of the authors whose books I read over that two-week break, one stood out like a shining beacon--Kate Atkinson.

I have been aware of the critical acclaim and awards Ms. Atkinson has received over the years. But being a genre animal, I had avoided her three crime novels, because she was always pegged as a “literary writer.” That term raises my hairs like the quills on a porcupine. I now realize, much to my embarrassment, that Atkinson’s three crime novels are remarkable feats of plotting and characterization, and that the “literary” edge does indeed add something special, something I’ve not experienced before in such a delightful manner. Discovering her work was, for me, like striking a rich Klondike seam.

The reason I finally decided to give her work a chance, was because of Deadly Pleasures magazine editor George Easter, who advised me that his next issue will contain a large feature about Atkinson and her work. I must also credit author Martin Edwards for a post he placed in his blog just before the winter holiday, which read in part:
I’ve read some terrific novels this year, but I recently finished the best of all. I’ve not read Kate Atkinson’s earlier books about Jackson Brodie, an ex cop turned p.i., but my agent Mandy Little said she thought I’d find something in common between my concerns and interests as a writer and Atkinson’s, and sent me her copy of When Will There Be Good News?
So I started with her first mystery novel, Case Histories (2004). It features her investigator, Jackson Brodie, whom she describes as ex-military, ex-police, and a sometime private investigator. It also sets the scene for the next two Brodie books, building and developing her storytelling style with ambition and brilliance. In the second series installment, One Good Turn (2006), she flexes her literary muscles further, which work well for her in last year’s When Will There Be Good News? I read the three novels in sequence, and trust me when I say these books are just too damned fine to read out of kilter. Each bleeds smoothly into the next. While reading, I was thoroughly sucked into the stories, reality crumbling around me. And when I finished Atkinson’s third, I put the book down and felt as if I’d been hit by a baseball bat, such was the power, compassion, and complexity of the narrative. I marveled at how she had knitted all the strands together, without spoon-feeding the reader overly much; instead, she treats her readers as the adults they are.

Atkinson’s work has been widely discussed on the Internet, so whatever insight I can offer at this late stage will be woefully lacking; however, let me try to explain why, in my opinion, these novels work so well. Again, I have to take care, as they are such fiendishly clever narrative vehicles, and I don’t wish to spoil the little plot-bombs that ignite throughout the tales.

Some of the power of Atkinson’s trilogy can certainly be ascribed to protagonist Jackson Brodie. This is made even more interesting, as these works are told in third-person, with the sections detailing Brodie’s “investigations” being somewhat minor to the other plot strands. Atkinson prefers to write about crimes and misdemeanors that seem, well, familiar--train wrecks, corruption, infidelity and its consequences, random and senseless killings, mistakes in marriages, introspection, and the amazing human capacity for self-delusion. These aren’t headline-grabbing transgressions, but rather B-class crimes, reflecting the darkness that resides in the mundane nature of existence. Atkinson has a keen eye for people, and a vivid way with words that supports her less-is-more style of narrative description.

In Case Histories (her first Brodie book, but actually her fourth published novel), we are presented with several plots: Jackson Brodie investigating the cold case of a missing child, who vanished from a tent decades ago; the senseless--and what appears to have been random--murder of a young woman at a legal practice; and an axe murder that erupts from a domestic dispute. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin summed up that novel in an insightful review, which concluded thusly:
Plot-driven as “Case Histories” is, it works because Ms. Atkinson sets up her surprises so well. With cinematic cleverness, she will deliberately leave an important figure out of the picture, or abruptly switch points of view in unsettling ways. Sometimes there are small hiccups in time, so that a line of dialogue crops up and is re-heard a few pages later, in a different context. By the end of the book, these tactics have tipped the story even more cinematically into out-and-out action--complete with a sabotaged car and a house that explodes on cue.

But the lifelike characters in “Case Histories” are what make it such a compelling hybrid: part complex family drama, part mystery. It winds up having more depth and vividness than ordinary thrillers and more thrills than ordinary fiction, with a constant awareness of perils swirling beneath its surface. Everyone here is just a little bit eyebrow-raising, like the grieving, daughter-obsessed Theo. “Just because he looked like Father Christmas didn’t make him benign,” Ms. Atkinson writes, “although he was, of course.” Of course.
One of the curious things about Case Histories is that Brodie, though he is the ostensible star, appears in roughly only a third of that novel. As she weaves together her small-scale stories, the author leaves you wanting to know more about her character. She reveals Brodie and his life as one might ration out small strips of beef jerky from a saddlebag.

When I started the second book, One Good Turn, I realized that Atkinson’s talent had sharpened. This complex tale was even more fiendish that its predecessor. Set against the backdrop of the Edinburgh Festival, we find Brodie with his love interest getting involved in a road-rage incident. But the events inciting that violence are also connected to the experiences of Russian brides, a property magnate seeing his business empire collapse, and the troublesome teenage son of a police inspector. As with Case Histories, the author forces her readers to contemplate how the random events in life may actually be interrelated--not always in favorable ways. Again, the Times’ Maslin summed up One Good Turn quite succinctly:
In the past Ms. Atkinson has played the minor time trick of letting events almost converge and then replaying them from slightly different points of view. She does that here to the same smart, unnerving effect. And she frequently brings up the image of Russian dolls, each hidden inside another, to illustrate how her storytelling tactics work.

By the apt ending of “One Good Turn” a whole series of these dolls has been opened. In the process the book has borne out one of Jackson’s favorite maxims: “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.”
I was drained by the conclusion of Atkinson’s tricky puzzle, but as Martin Edwards had suggested, the real treat was yet to follow, in When Will There Be Good News? That third Brodie yarn finds the detective fairly relegated to the role of minor player. Instead, a young girl named Reggie Chase takes control of the story, which builds around a train crash, the mystery surrounding the decades-old murder of a mother and her children, a murderous spouse, a Glasgow gangster’s revenge, and a whole lot more. The novel, with its melancholic air, captivated me completely, Atkinson impressing me with her spectacular skill in weaving such a tapestry of fiction.

When Will There Be Good News? has been received with rapturous applause, being tapped by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, co-hosts of Britain’s popular Richard & Judy TV-magazine show, as one of their recommended reads. Although I hate to keep mentioning Maslin, I think she assesses this third Brodie novel well, too:
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.
It’s not overstating the case to say that my winter holiday was made memorable by Atkinson’s trio of novels. Their contents led me to think about life and death. I urge those of you who, like me, were put off by the suggestion of these books being “literary” to give them another chance. And read the novels in the order they were published, because when you get to When Will There Be Good News?, you will find your world rocked. What better result can one hope for from reading fiction?

The problem now, of course, is that--like so many of her other fans--I am desperate to find out how Kate Atkinson can top the excellence of that third Brodie outing.

If you’d like to sample the first chapter from When Will There Be Good News?, simply click here.


Janet Rudolph said...

Excellent review of the mystery series. I've real all the Atkinson books. Yes, the non-mysteries, too. She's a wonderful writer. I wonder also how she'll top this one.

pattinase (abbott) said...

What a lovely essay this is and so persuasive. I loved her pre-crime books so I should read these. Thanks.