“Somehow it seemed unlikely it was a coincidence. What had Jackson said? A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.
Kate Atkinson is one of my favourite writers, and the quote above describes the nature of her Jackson Brodie mysteries. There are seemingly random incidents and events involving separate characters around whom Atkinson builds back stories. Not for every character, but for the ones we’re going to become interested in, even if we don’t know why.
Jackson is in Edinburgh with girlfriend Julia for the Fringe Festival, where she is performing in a low-budget, (dreadful) play which Jackson has helped to bankroll with his unexpected windfall inheritance. With his windfall, he’d also bought a place in France, which he now considers home, but he still misses his young daughter and ex-wife, although we don’t see them this time around.
While Julia’s rehearsing, he’s amusing himself with the sights of Edinburgh and stumbling across things you and I wouldn’t. A dead body, for example.
But I’m ahead of myself. The book opens with a case of road rage. Serious road rage, and it happens in the middle of the day, right in front of people queuing to go into various festival events, and Jackson, who was just leaving Julia’s theatre.
Ray is the driver of the first vehicle.“He looked in the rear-view mirror. A blue Honda Civic, the driver climbing out – big guy, slabs of weightlifter muscle, gym-fit rather than survival-fit, he wouldn’t have been able to last three months in the jungle or the desert the way that Ray could have done. He wouldn’t have lasted a day.”
We get some back story on Ray. Then there’s Martin. Martin has chucked his laptop at the driver of the second car who is just about to beat Ray to death, jungle training or no jungle training. Martin has shocked himself.
Atkinson gives us a fair bit of Martin’s background – a timid child, a quiet man, but a surprisingly successful author of cosy mysteries under pseudonym, Alex Blake. We learn a lot about Martin, while waiting to see what’s happening in the road, but I never mind Atkinson’s diversions. I like her people too much. And she brings us back to the incident.“Martin tried to make himself an anonymous figure in the queue, tried to pretend he didn’t exist. He closed his eyes. He had done that at school when he was bullied, clinging to an ancient, desperate magic – they wouldn’t hit him if he couldn’t see them.”
Also nearby is Gloria, whom we will come to know very well later. She’s been dragged along by a friend to a comedy show she’s not looking forward to, but she’s fine with lining up to wait. “Queuing was like life, you just shut up and got on with it. It seemed a shame she had been born just too late for the Second World War, she possessed exactly the kind of long-suffering spirit that wartime relied on.”
Again, we are diverted into Gloria’s life with her husband who became rich building dodgy houses. And again, I didn’t mind the diversion.
So where’s former detective Brodie? He’s been trying to escape the rather dingy venue where Julia and the cast are gathered to rehearse.“Theatre for Jackson, although of course he would never say this to any of them, was a good pantomime, preferably in the company of an enthusiastic child.”
He’s ‘escaped’ outside just in time to see the action. Martin’s laptop has clipped the shoulder of the attacker, who’s just driven off, while self-described superman Ray is curled up bashed and bleeding on the ground. Martin is talking to him as the police arrive, so Jackson isn’t needed.
By this time, we know a fair bit about several people, none of whom know each other and each of whom we will follow (with interest, I must add), to find out how they become connected to Jackson and Julia.
I read this several years ago, and while I remembered some scenes, it was just as much fun this time around. Because Atkinson writes such whole people, it’s good to see them again. She ties up all the plot threads nicely, and if you were watching it like an old movie, you’d find yourself saying things like “Look behind you! See that guy? That’s the guy you’re looking for!!”
But of course, only we know that because we read someone’s story. There’s no way Jackson Brodie would know it. In this case, what he said in the opening quotation applies.“A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.”
I must say, the sights of Edinburgh are nice, but because it’s Festival time and there is no accommodation available, the hotels we see are dreadful.“He was not alone in his shoebox cell, however. The first night he was there he got up to go to the bathroom and almost stood on a cockroach pasturing on his bedroom carpet.”
Detective Sergeant Louise Monroe is a major character, interesting as a woman, a single mother with a surly 14-year-old son and an ancient cat. Her love life has been stifled, now that her son is a teen and she has no privacy to speak of. She adores him but has no idea how to handle him. (Who does?) “They said love made you strong but in Louise’s opinion it made you weak. It corkscrewed into your heart and you couldn’t get it out again, not without ripping your heart to pieces.
. . .
The front door crashed open and was slammed shut again. Archie’s passage through the house was marked by the noise of things thrown and dropped and walked into. He was like the ball in a pinball machine. He exploded into the kitchen, nearly falling over his own feet. After he was born the midwife said, ‘Boys wreck your house, girls wreck your head.’ Archie seemed intent on doing both.”
I’ve included so much of the background because this is not a quick pot-boiler mystery. This is a wonderful, complete work of fiction, and even if you can’t find the first in the series, Case Histories
, you can certainly enjoy this one anyway. They are more fun read in order, but rules are meant to be broken, aren’t they?