When I settle in with a Jackson Brodie novel, I can’t help but imagine the author, Kate Atkinson, snickering at her laptop as she taps out her sly narration and Brodie’s self-deprecating inner monologues.
Not to undermine the hard work of one of the U.K.’s most respected novelists, but surely it’s more painful for her to chip away the marble encasing intricate and deeply satisfying works like “Life After Life” than it is to stage-manage the life of Brodie, the ex-soldier, ex-cop, ex-husband and current private detective whose exploits quench another, equally important thirst among readers.
In “Big Sky,” Brodie, in modest superhero mode, saves several lives, possibly besting his own record for deaths averted in a day.
Still, he remains haunted by the one he couldn’t save, his slain sister, Niamh, who died when he was just a child. He’s also in dad mode, entertaining his teenage son, Nathan, for several days while his former partner, Julia, an actress, shoots a TV show (and steps out with a new love interest).
How he came to discover that Nathan existed at all is a story in itself (covered in another book), since, like everyone else in the Brodie books, Julia lies, at least part of the time.
While he is saving lives, Brodie finds himself in the position of comforting the afflicted, and the off-the-cuff therapy he dispenses draws heavily on the country music lyrics that sustain him as he drives around following cheating hearts, in the employ of the spouses they’re cheating on. He’s clear on the fact that this job doesn’t rise to “dealing with criminals, just high-functioning morons.”
Inevitably, he falls into a nest of evil far more complicated.
In this new novel, that evil is exploitation, with one plot about human traffickers based in Yorkshire braided with a scandal involving a far-reaching empire of sexual predators built decades earlier by ice cream and amusement park barons. Blood flows and brutality abounds, but Atkinson’s disciplined storytelling keeps everything in perspective.
To fill all the roles these storylines demand, the book is populated with a huge cast of characters, a veritable villageful, but even the bad guys are dimensional and human (or nearly so), and no character is too extreme to include.
Take the beautiful, determined Crystal, with her hard, glossy shell. Everything about her is a lie, indebted to an active self-preservation drive. A strict vegan when no one’s looking and the mother of a little princess, she’s married to Tommy, who wallows in the money he makes in partnership with some friends. (One member of Tommy’s crew, Andy, goes so far as to invest the excess money in pricey designer bags for his wife, who is led to believe they are knockoffs.)
Among Crystal’s responsibilities is her eccentric teenage stepson, Harry, who makes a lot of jokes about cheese and helps to fill in some of her intellectual shortcomings. When Harry compares someone to Mr. Rochester (of “Jane Eyre”), Crystal asks, “Is he a teacher at your school?” Harry has a couple of part-time jobs, among them one at a theater where he becomes a close friend of the drag queen Bunny Hopps.
And so, grisly subject matter and violence aside, thanks to its broad spectrum of inhabitants, “Big Sky” is full of raucous scenes, laugh-out-loud moments and dark humor:
“Julia, Nathan’s mother, could go toe to toe with Jackson in the grief stakes — one sister murdered, one sister who killed herself, one who died of cancer. (‘Oh, and don’t forget Daddy’s sexual abuse,’ she reminded him. ‘Trumps to me, I think.’)”
The novel is also studded with little gems from past Brodie books, including an encounter with Reggie Chase from “When Will There Be Good News.” That may be enough of a hook to entice you to read that book, or even the whole series this summer. There are worse ways to while away a long afternoon.
Helen T. Verongos is an editor on the culture desk of the New York Times.