I'm a big fan of Kate Atkinson's writing (I've blogged about Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Case Histories), so my expectations were high when I picked up this new novel.
Since the action described in Case Histories, Jackson Brodie has used his inheritance to retire from his job as a private detective and purchase an estate in France. As this novel starts, he and his sometime girlfriend, Julia, are in Edinburgh where she has a part in one of the festival offerings. As Jackson leaves Julia's venue, he witnesses a fender-bender that escalates into road rage. Murder is narrowly avoided by the reluctant action of a bystander who, shocked out of his native timidity, throws his briefcase at the giant wielding a baseball bat.
Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I am not a fan of novels where the point of view jumps around. Here, chapters alternate between Jackson, Martin (the bystander), Paul (the victim in the accident), Gloria (another bystander, wife of builder who puts up acres of shoddy homes), Louise (a recently promoted Detective Inspector), Archie (Louise's teenaged son), Richard (a friend of a friend of Martin), and Sophia (a maid who cleans Martin's home). There's a crazy Russian woman too, but I don't think there's a chapter from her point of view. I could be wrong.
At least we stay with one point of view for the entire chapter (and it's always a close third person, not first person), but the end result is almost as confusing as that list suggests. What saves it is that the core of the story sticks with Jackson, Louise, Gloria, and Martin. And, of course, Atkinson's writing skill. Still, I found this novel hard going, especially the first few chapters when we get biographies of each of the main characters. I never did get them all sorted out, but had to keep going back to remind myself of which family background went with which character.
Just to be clear, a poor Atkinson novel is still pretty darn good. I liked the way Atkinson explores Brodie's feelings, as an ex-policeman, when he finds himself on the wrong side of the interview table. On the other hand, the truly horrible excerpts from Martin's cozy crime novels bothered me. Impossible to believe novels so poorly written could be as successful as the story claimed, and this broad satire made it hard to take the story's crimes as seriously as we are clearly meant to. The occasionally satirical tone also jarred against the description of Louise's agonising struggles as the single mother of a 14-year-old boy.
It's easy to find fault. I admire Atkinson for trying a different form and for writing what, despite its defects, is still a good read.