Jackson Brodie, former soldier and police inspector, now private detective, is novelist Kate Atkinson’s most popular character. Hero of four previous novels and champion of the powerless, Jackson has led a star-crossed life: He was left motherless at 13; his sister was murdered; his brother hanged himself; his first wife, the mother of his daughter, divorced him; his second, absconded with his money; and his paramour, Julia, the mother of his son, moved on to other men.
We haven’t heard from this hard-luck case in more than a decade, although a version of him showed up — played by Jason Isaacs, often missing his shirt — in the BBC television series “Case Histories” in 2011. It seemed entirely possible that even his creator, who can be surprisingly ruthless, had given the old boy the boot. But, no: Jackson Brodie is back, somewhat older, but once again enmeshed in a tangle of storylines. “Big Sky” is both an entertaining caper fueled by coincidence and a sordid story of human trafficking.
Jackson is now living on the east coast of Yorkshire, England, its summer-seaside ambience excellently evoked. When we are reunited with him, he is looking after Julia’s ancient dog, keeping his eye on a cheating husband he has been paid to follow, and trying to have a meaningful father-son excursion with 13-year-old Nathan. He is facing stiff competition in the last endeavor from Nathan’s cellphone and is thinking rueful, old-guy thoughts inspired by the boy’s contemptuous attitude toward what his pitiful father considers enjoyable — in this case, a mock World War II naval battle on a pond. (“ ‘Jesus,’ Nathan muttered. ‘This is pathetic.’ “)
Meanwhile, a few miles away, a certain Vince Ives, who has just been laid off from his job as a manager in a telecom-equipment company, is playing a round of golf with two other men. One, Tommy Holroyd, is an ex-boxer and bouncer, and now the owner of a haulage company. His first wife, the mother of his 16-year-old son, Harry, was killed when she fell off a cliff (accidentally?); his second, Crystal, the mother of 3-year-old Candy, is a pneumatic beauty with a murky past.
The other golfer is Andy Bragg, runs a travel agency (“Exotic Tours”) and is in some kind of business with Tommy. He’s married to Rhoda, a formidable woman who operates a bed-and-breakfast. Vince’s own wife, Wendy, has recently decided she doesn’t want him around anymore, has thrown him out, and is busy stripping him of his worldly goods. Vince’s friend Steve Mellors, a lawyer who introduced him to Tommy and Andy, is handling Vince’s divorce in a strangely desultory way.
A number of other key characters materialize in the first hundred pages. Along with Tommy’s son, Harry, who has summer jobs at Transylvania World and a theater, are Harry’s friend “Bunny” Hopps, a kindhearted, flamboyant female impersonator “built like a rugby forward,” and Barclay Jack, an unsavory, foul-mouthed, boozing comedian.
Reggie Chase, an old friend of ours from “When Will There be Good News?” Jackson’s third outing, also shows up. She is a police detective now, partnered up with another female detective, Ronnie Dibicki, the two of them looking into a decade-old case which has resurfaced concerning a ring of sexual predators who enjoy underage girls. Although a couple of operators had been identified and convicted years before, rumor has it that a “magic circle” of further perpetrators still exists. Also in play are two sisters, Nadja and Katja, who are happily preparing to set off from Poland for England where a man calling himself Mark Price has promised them go-ahead jobs in the British hotel industry. (Readers who weren’t born yesterday will have a bad feeling about this.)
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After the main characters are all up and running, their personalities in high gear, events become gratifyingly sinister: Abduction, murder, enslavement, and the reverberation of past iniquities mark the plot, one which is spun out from the viewpoints of half a dozen characters. Their minds are constantly abuzz with unspoken, sardonic or self-deprecating commentary, a feature that, along with Atkinson’s quiet whimsy and mischievous liberality with coincidence, gives this writer’s work its unique comic flair and lightens the dark unraveling of monstrous crimes.
The plot of “Big Sky” is something of a ramshackle affair, but it hardly matters. Kate Atkinson is a wayward writer, her books are, in the end, uncategorizable. Her Jackson Brodie novels are both more than crime novels — and less. They are sui generis and they, like this one, are enormously enjoyable.