Atkinson’s latest is what we’ve come to expect from her: funny, morbid, complex crime writing rife with gleeful asides. Though many make the attempt, few writers are as deft at tossing in random references to popular music, Ancient Greek, English snobbishness, or the niceties of home decor. And these asides keep you laughing as you read—aloud, really, because you won’t be able to put it down—though When Will There Be Good News?, which is possibly even more depressing than One Good Turn.
When Will There Be Good News? begins with the triple murder of Gabrielle Mason and her two children, Joseph and Jessica. Only six-year-old Joanna Mason, heeding her mother’s imprecation to run, survives, outwardly unscathed.
Thirty years later, we once again meet Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe, one of Atkinson’s best creations. Louise cannot abide bullshit in any form. Nor is she able to control her mouth, even around her newly acquired surgeon husband and his uptight family. Her capacity to love, while limited, is ferocious, extending only to her son, Archie, and Jackson Brodie, former cop, now private investigator.
Jackson has less of a role in When Will There Be Good News?, but manages to make himself critical at several plot points. He is Atkinson’s great loner, the sensitive detective who always manages to land on his feet, surviving train wrecks, mistaken identity, confounded all the while by women who take advantage of his good nature.
But Louise has plenty to distract her from Jackson. Andrew Decker, the Mason family killer, has served his time, a model prisoner. Now he’s being freed. Louise, who would have preferred Decker be ripped apart with knives, is disgusted. Then there’s David Needler, who remains at large after killing his mother-in-law, sister-law, and another woman at his daughter’s birthday party. He terrorizes his ex-wife, Alison, and their three children, remaining elusive until the horrifying end.
Toss in a train crash, mysterious fires happening only to properties belonging to Joanna Mason’s husband, Neil Hunter, and Reggie Chase, another of Atkinson’s worldly orphans, and the Atkinsonian plot machine—a wonderful thing—is off and running.
Violence and death are everywhere, both random and intended. Even as Atkinson cracks jokes through precocious 16-year-old Reggie’s mouth, Reggie is missing her mother, drowned in a swimming accident. Jackson continues mourning his beloved sister Niamh, whose murder remains unsolved (Brodie book four? Please?). Joanna, now the successful Dr. Hunter, has married handsome, sketchy Neil and created the facade of a perfect life, right down to her perfect Victorian home and adorable, adored infant son.
While lines like “When the going gets tough, the tough take drugs,” (I intend to make this my personal mantra) and “She was wearing an aggressive three-piece outfit that was probably very expensive but had the kind of pattern you would get if you cut up the flags of several obscure countries and then gave then to a blind pigeon to stick back together again.” made me laugh aloud.
But again, the sadness hovering over the book is inescapable. Violence against women is a recurring theme: mothers, daughters, sisters are kidnapped, raped, stabbed, and left for dead, often by their own families. At one point Atkinson writes a litany of female deaths, ironically awarding each woman a posthumous medal. One for Aunt Debbie, who stepped in front of seven children to take David Needler’s bullet. A medal for a mother I will not name, to avoid spoiling the plot. A medal to Gabrielle Mason, who fought off Andrew Decker to the end:
Louise had been there…with Archie when he was little…suddenly aware of the nutter’s sloping walk, his shifting gaze. Don’t make eye contact. Walk past briskly, don’t draw attention to yourself. Somewhere, in some Utopian nowhere, women walked without fear. Louise would sure like to see that place. Give medals to all women.
Give all medals to women, indeed. Let’s start with Atkinson.