Yes, Virginia, there is another mystery writer in Scotland besides Ian Rankin. Why I had never heard of Kate Atkinson before, I do not know—she writes like an angel and her sense of humor is wed firmly to her formidable intelligence. Say what you will about the crassness of big bookstores, I am grateful to Barnes & Noble. It was on one of its display tables that I first saw “Case Histories,” the novel that precedes the one I’m reviewing here.
In two days (and two nearly sleepless nights), I read the whole thing. Atkinson’s reluctant detective, Jackson Brodie, is every bit as funny and compelling as Rankin’s Rebus. What he lacks is the Greek chorus of a police department commenting on the action and doing all the “procedural” stuff that regular readers of detective fiction expect in a murder mystery. That’s OK with me, because I’m not a regular reader of such novels (though I may now become one).
Brodie solves several different cold cases in “Case Histories,” becoming entangled in the lives of the people he’s helping. In its sequel, “One Good Turn,” Brodie reappears a bit older, a bit wiser, and romantically involved with one of the main characters in the previous book, Julia, a not particularly successful actress. Brodie has accompanied her to Edinburgh, where she’s performing in an avant-garde play during the Fringe Festival.
The descriptions of the festival are spot-on. The novel begins with a line of ticket-holders waiting to get into a venue. Suddenly, a fender bender beside the queue turns violent, “but the crowd was in audience mode, like promenaders at a particularly brutal piece of theater, and they had no intention of spoiling the entertainment.”
One of the witnesses is a meek fellow named Martin Canning, who happens to be a successful detective novelist. In horror, he realizes one of the two men in the fender bender is about to bash in the other’s head with a baseball bat. In an out-of-character instant, he hurls his bag at the aggressor’s head—and misses, because “he’d never been able to aim or catch, he was the kind of person who ducked when a ball was thrown in his direction, but his laptop was in the bag and the hard weighty edge of it caught the Honda driver on the shoulder and sent him spinning.” Brodie, another witness, gives his card to Canning. Canning accompanies the victim to the hospital, then spends the night with him in a hotel because the man has suffered a head injury.
Another person waiting in the queue is Gloria, the wife of a shady house builder and millionaire, Graham Hatter. Misunderstanding what has happened, she thinks: “She could understand why someone might want to kill a queue jumper. If it had been up to her she would have summarily executed a great many people by now—people who dropped litter in the street, for example, they would certainly think twice about the discarded sweet wrapper if it resulted in being strung up from the nearest lamppost. Gloria used to be opposed to capital punishment, she remembered, during her too-brief time at university ... but now her feelings tended to run in quite the opposite direction.” Other wonderful characters include Richard Mott, the obnoxious has-been comedian they’re all in line to hear; Graham’s Russian mistress, Tatiana; Detective Sgt. Louise Monroe and her juvenile delinquent son, Archie; and all of the people from each of their pasts.
Atkinson, a literary novelist, has hit upon a great truth of crime fiction: A detective as a main character enables the writer to bring together people who otherwise would never mingle narratively. The fact that most of these characters are also Scots from Edinburgh adds another dimension. The reiterated phrase “justified sinner” is a nod to Edinburgh’s great novelist, James Hogg. Hogg first explored the dark side of Scots literature and history, pointing up the dualism of human nature as it is manifested in Scotland.
Martin Canning, like the hero of Hogg’s “Confessions of a Justified Sinner,” has a double, Alex Blake. Alex is everything Martin is not: strong, clever, memorable. But, like all doubles, he’s really a part of Martin—in this case, the pen name he writes under. Poor Martin in the flesh cannot present himself as a great Scot, not even when he’s dressed in a kilt: “He had eventually decided on a kilt made up in a MacPherson dress green but had never had the nerve to wear it in public, and it hung neglected in his wardrobe. Occasionally he tried it on and wore it around the house, but it was an odd, closeted act, as if he were a secretive transvestite rather than a swaggering Scot.”
Still, there’s more to Martin. He’s not quite the milquetoast he seems, although I must say the revelation we ultimately get about him is the one aspect of this novel that does not ring true to me. But that’s OK—the novel is a wonderful read despite that. Although I liked “Case Histories” slightly more than this sequel, I remain utterly impressed by Kate Atkinson. I’ll definitely be reading anything else she cares to publish.
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