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Monday, July 1, 2019

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Little, Brown & Co., 400 pages, $28

Warning: I will be using the words “love,” “genius,” “unexpected,” “spectacular,” and “genuflecting” many times during this review.

Jackson Brodie has been resurrected* to appear in “Big Sky, “ the fifth novel in Kate Atkinson’s adept series. Atkinson has a writing style that is designed to keep readers off balance. She inserts humor in subtle ways in unexpected places. She has a protagonist who appears only sporadically and sometimes just whimsically in her series. She probably sits at her writing desk and says the word “traditional,” then laughs uncontrollably.

In broad strokes, Atkinson plays with fate and coincidence. (I say it is coincidence if it is non-fiction and fate if it is fiction.) “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen,” says Jackson Brodie. Thus it is that a diverse and idiosyncratic lot are tossed into the area where the sun first rises in Yorkshire: Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay, Scarborough, the Cleveland Way, picturesque areas I know from having hiked the Coast-to-Coast route years ago.

Jackson settles into his new abode near Whitby, having made the decision that investigation can be done from anywhere. Down the road is The Seashell hotel, run by the formidable Rhoda and her meekly acquiescent husband Andy Bragg. Not too far away are the offices of Steven Mellors, a lawyer for whom Brodie has done some work. Jackson’s new client is Crystal Holroyd, wife of Tommy. One evening, Jackson happens across Vincent Ives who fears he will be charged with the death of his wife, Wendy. Jackson takes pity on Vince and gives him a business card. Call if I can help, he says to Vince. Ha!

DC Ronnie Dibicki and DC Reggie Chase are young police officers set to check out any current connections to an old case of corruption and a pedophile ring run by Antonio Bassani and Michael Carmody, now in jail or dead. Oh, you Kate Atkinson fans, does the name Reggie Chase sound familiar? Toss your remembering muscle back to “When Will There Be Good News” (c2008). She was sixteen years old in that book, and now she is twenty-six. It is a delight to witness Reggie and Jackson’s subdued reunion, haunted as it is by a murder and odious men. At one point Jackson says to Reggie, “Truth is absolute, but the consequences of it aren’t.” “Sounds like a specious argument to me, Mr. B,” shoots back Reggie. It’s a wonderful if brief connection.

Here is where Atkinson draws the strings up and hauls her characters into the same bag. Tommy, Andy, and Vince are golfing buddies. (“Golfing friends,” Vince thinks, not “friend friends.”) Right off the bat, we learn Tommy, Andy and Steven are involved in something shady. Ronnie and Reggie are trying to interview … Tommy, Andy, and Vince in conjunction with the old case. As a matter of fact, they are in Vince’s apartment when he learns someone has murdered his soon-to-be-ex-wife. (Did Vince?) At one point Reggie spies Jackson in the distance, the first time she has seen him in a long while. It is then that she recalls Jackson’s comment on coincidence just waiting for an explanation. Coincidence (or fate) is the life-blood of “Big Sky.”

The main characters are Jackson, Reggie, Crystal, Harry [Crystal’s stepson], and Vince. Atkinson sometimes writes a scene several times so we can see it from the viewpoint of different characters. These characters are plopped into circumstances mostly not of their creation and left to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. These people are unusually nuanced, engaging oddballs, victims of fate (or coincidence).

Will Ronnie and Reggie find connections to their old case? Who killed Wendy? What’s the story about Tommy, Andy, and Steven? (Okay, you learn right off the bat that it is sex trafficking. Slimy, grody, reprehensible, inexcusable sex trafficking. But in Atkinson’s understated way, there are almost no graphic scenes, but there often is a view of the black-and-blue aftermath.) Crystal wants Jackson to determine who has been tailing her, so … Who is tailing Crystal? Why have anonymous notes panicked Crystal and has-been comic Barclay Jack? What about Vince? What will happen to sweet sixteen-year-old Harry, a summer employee of Transylvania World, a volunteer assistant to Barclay Jack, and the son of the odious Tommy?

There are invisible threads everywhere, and it is our delight to see Atkinson roll them out and unravel them. As Atkinson writes, “Worlds were colliding all over the place. Jackson thought he might actually have gone mad.”

This is not a whodunnit. You are not given clues per se and asked to solve the murder along with the detective. This is a look at some good-hearted people trying to wade through life’s many miseries, mysteries, and mayhem and not lose their humanity. The big sky covers us all.

A huge MBTB star for this one!

* As Jackson ponders his past, he reminisces: “He’d fallen off a cliff, been attacked by a mad dog, almost died in a train crash, nearly drowned, been crushed in a garbage truck, blown up — his house had been, anyway — and that wasn’t counting  a couple of near misses when serving in the police and the Army. His life had been a litany of disasters. What if he was already on his ninth life? The last go-round. Perhaps he should be more cautious.”

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