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“There was nothing [in Cambridge] for him, just bad memories and a past he could never undo, and what was the point anyway when France was laid out on the other side of the channel like an exotic patchwork of sunflowers and grapevines and little cafes where he could sit all afternoon drinking local wine and bitter espressos and smoking Gitanes…and he would be happy. Which was exactly the opposite of how he felt now.”–about Jackson Brodie.

Jackson Brodie, a former police inspector turned private investigator, is investigating three old cases, which soon begin to converge and then overlap. Three-year-old Olivia Land disappeared without a trace thirty-five years ago while sleeping in a tent with one of her sisters, two of whom have hired Jackson to find out what happened to her. Theo Wyre has hired him to investigate the death of his daughter Laura, his much-loved 18-year-old daughter, who was slashed and killed by a maniac ten years before while working in her father’s office. Theo, having spent ten years accumulating information, has turned over a roomful of files to Jackson. Shirley Morrison, Jackson’s third client, is trying to locate her sister and her niece. Her sister Michelle, married at eighteen and living with her husband and screaming daughter on an isolated farm, has vanished from Shirley’s life, and after twenty-five years, Shirley wants to find her.

Scottish author Kate Atkinson introduces these characters—in this first Jackson Brodie novel (2004)– and sets up their cases at the outset of the novel, creating suspenseful and dramatic tales which pique the reader’s interest in the characters and their lives, especially the female characters. Most have faced traumatic events and suffered through less than ideal childhoods, which unfold inexorably as Atkinson introduces greater complexity through Jackson’s investigations of their lives. Not a linear narrative, the novel focuses on different characters in successive chapters, moving back and forth in time to provide background and to set up the overlaps which eventually occur among the cases. The characters are sometimes bizarre, baffling, and even unsympathetic, but they are always memorable for their behavior and their justifications for it, and the reader will have no difficulty keeping track of them.

Filled with ironies and noir humor, the novel also reflects Atkinson’s astute observation of social interactions, as she skewers some aspects of her characters’ lives at the same time that she manages to create interest and even sympathy for them. While the first two case histories—that of the missing Olivia and the murdered Laura—are genuinely sad and regarded overall as tragedies, the story of Michelle Fletcher, and peripherally, her sister Shirley, is much darker, and even a bit cynical. Though the reader sees overlaps between the first two cases, this additional case remains undeveloped for much of the novel. Neither Michelle nor Shirley elicits much empathy after the opening chapter, but the occasional interjection of their story line stirs up the action, changes the pace, and keeps the novel from being overly melodramatic. Atkinson’s eventual revelations about Michelle’s life, apart from Shirley, provide Atkinson with some of her best opportunities for social satire and wit in the latter stage of the novel.

A detailed analysis of the plot is impossible here without giving away some of the clever twists and turns in this engaging and often very funny novel. With irony at the forefront, Atkinson saves the biggest noir twists for last. The cases, as they have been presented to us at the beginning of the novel, are, in fact, all “solved” by Jackson. But in a supreme irony, they aren’t really solved. At least five important “loose ends” regarding the perpetrators in these cases of murder and disappearance remain, showing that even murder cases are not as “cut and dried” as one might expect.

Notes:  The author’s photo is from http://www.bbc.co.uk

Also by Atkinson,  ONE GOOD TURN (#2 in the series),      WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS (#3),         STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG (#4)     and    LIFE AFTER LIFE

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