Author: Kate Atkinson
Publisher: Doubleday, detective fiction
Kate Atkinson may not be unique among modern novelists in writing two distinct types of fiction (JK Rowling is another example, although she used the nom de plume of Galbraith to do it) but it is, shall we say, an unusual skill.
Alongside the literary novels that have brought her international prizes and recognition – Behind The Scenes At The Museum (1995), Life After Life (2013), A God In Ruins (2015) and, most recently, Transcription (2018) – Atkinson has written a string of private detective novels featuring Jackson Brodie. Big Sky is the most recent of these.
Although it is the fifth in the series and despite several references to the earlier books, Big Sky stands on its own and little previous knowledge of Brodie is required. We are reminded that he is ex-military, ex-police and now a private investigator. When we first encounter him in Big Sky he is engaged in the matrimonial surveillance that is the bread and butter of his life. Except that, in this case, the wife of the cheating husband does not appear to want to do anything with the evidence of infidelity that Jackson has painstakingly accumulated. Instead, in a nice and typically Atkinson twist to the normal, she just wants more of it.
One of the oddities of Big Sky is that despite being a “Jackson Brodie novel”, he hardly features in it at first. For much of the book he is a peripheral figure who only gets involved in the main action by accident. And when he does, he is pretty ineffective. “Claims he’s a detective,” one employer comments, “but he’s shit at detecting.”
He’s not too good at life either, living in a modest house, sharing uncomfortable custody of his son with his wife, a defeated character locked into a tedious existence. Until, of course, he stumbles into real hard-core crime and everything changes dramatically at the end of the book.
The criminal core of Big Sky is unpleasant and topical. Anderson Price Associates (APA) masquerades as an upmarket employment agency in London. In fact, it is an artfully contrived scam. “The office was a fake. Anderson Price Associates was a fake. Mark Price was a fake. Only his Rolex was real. He wasn’t in an office in London; he was in a static caravan in a field on the East Coast.”
The real business of APA is trafficking. Luring young women with promises of good jobs in England, “Mark Price” and his associates run an organised crime ring in which their victims are entrapped, beaten, sold and abused. These are very nasty people indeed.
Big Sky is slow to get going as Atkinson carefully builds up her milieu. The East Coast is the north-east of England, portrayed by Atkinson as a world of seedy seaside arcades and washed up actors performing in tired and inappropriate vaudeville shows.
It seems the perfect setting for historic child abuse and so it proves, as a cold case with high-profile suspects is re-opened. Bassani and Carmody ran their paedophile operation through fairgrounds and icecream; the dying Carmody has more to reveal from his prison cell.
In apparent contrast is the world of the Belvedere Golf Club with its clutch of self-made, self-satisfied men. “On the green were Thomas Holroyd, Andrew Bragg, Vincent Ives. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker. Actually the owner of a haulage company, a travel-agent- cum-hotelier and a telecom equipment area manager.” Tommy, ex-bouncer, ex-boxer, is the dominant male with his trophy wife Crystal, “a construction made from artificial materials – the acrylic nails, the silicone breasts, the polymer eyelashes.” Vince proves the odd man out. None of them is quite as they seem.
One of the most notable features of Big Sky is its tone. In what I suppose is a postmodern take on the genre, Atkinson nods and winks at the reader with little asides and innuendos. The two detectives Ronnie and Reggie are a deadpan double act. Brodie utilises the words from country and western songs as containing “better advice than he could conjure up himself”. Song lyrics litter the text, often at key moments. References to other crime novels and detectives occur from time to time. Comedy runs alongside tragedy. “You should write crime novels,” Reggie says to Brodie, “You’ve got a real talent for fiction.”
Atkinson is knowing about her genre and clearly wants us to be too. Does all this fit with the deadly seriousness of the actual plot and the crimes around which it turns? I will leave that for you to decide.
Atkinson’s creation of character and place are exemplary and the plotting is very tight. For all its moments of levity, Big Sky packs a punch and, in the best traditions of the genre, many of our initial impressions and expectations are overturned. The character I ended up liking best was the one I would least have expected initially.
And Big Sky is never less than a gripping read despite its leisurely pace. This is one very clever book. Too clever?