I finished Case Histories, the first novel in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, crouched between cars on a sweltering train traveling from Cambridge to Edinburgh. That’s the same train Jackson himself rides in book 3–and man, does Atkinson hit the nail on the head with her description of that trip. I’d looked forward to the ride North with the misguided optimism of an American trained to romanticize European trains. European trains are nice. But England, as they’ve been at pains to tell the world for a few years now, is not Europe, and their trains are terrible. Luckily, I had a good book or five to help pass the time.
Jackson Brodie #2: One Good Turn
In the second installment of the series, One Good Turn (2006), a retired Jackson Brodie accompanies his actress girlfriend Julia to Edinburgh (just like me!). While Julia rehearses for the Fringe Festival, Jackson witnesses an altercation on the street and becomes accidentally entangled in the murder of a Russian woman. Like it’s predecessor, One Good Turn features a sparkling cast of eccentrics who utterly steal the show. There’s Martin, the overwrought author of a series of cozy historical mysteries, Gloria, the disenchanted wife of a corrupt real estate developer, and Louise, a hard-nosed female detective and single mother (who just happens to live in one of the terrible houses Gloria’s husband builds). One Good Turn is both funnier and less wrenching than its predecessor, but just as absorbing. PLUS: sparks fly between almost willfully obtuse Jackson and snappy Louise, lending the barest tinge of will-they-won’t-they drama.
Jackson Brodie #3: When Will There be Good News
The third Jackson Brodie is my personal favorite. In When Will There be Good News (2008), Atkinson introduces Dr Joanna “Jo” Hunter, possibly the greatest character in the whole series. In the first chapter, six-year-old Jo survives a violent attack that kills her mother and siblings. In the present day, grown-up Jo is a successful GP and adoring new mother. She has a slightly dodgy businessman for a husband, and an adoring, delightfully precocious teenage nanny called Reggie. Then, police detective Louise Monroe (yes, there she is again!) warns Jo that her family’s killer, Andrew Decker, is scheduled for release. The next day Dr Hunter disappears. Reggie quickly becomes convinced Mr Hunter’s criminal business associates have kidnapped her beloved employer–but everyone else stubbornly insists that Dr Hunter has simply taken a few days away to avoid the notoriety of Decker’s release.
Luckily, there’s a passenger on the train to Edinburgh who’s sure to help–our own Jackson Brodie. When Reggie witnesses a train derailment, she runs to the scene to assist and ends up administering first aid to an injured passenger who just so happens to be a former policeman and private detective. After Jackson recovers, he agrees to help Reggie search for Dr Hunter. Meanwhile, Louise becomes increasingly suspicious of Dr Hunter’s husband and his questionable business practices. Jackson and Louise remain very mutually attracted, although both are now remarried to other people (who doesn’t love a little unrequited flame?).
Jackson Brodie #4: Started Early, Took My Dog
Set in Leads in West Yorkshire, between 1975 and present day, Started Early, Took My Dog focuses on the fate of a missing child. In the era of the Yorkshire Ripper slayings, WDC Tracy Waterhouse and her partner discover a four-year-old locked inside an apartment with the body of his murdered mother. In the present day, Tracy, now retired from the police force and heading up security at a local mall, spots a well-known local sex worker abusing a small child, and makes the split-second decision to buy the little girl with an envelope of cash intended for her handyman. Meanwhile, Jackson Brodie has a new job helping to help recover kidnapped children abroad, but, always susceptible to pleas for help, has agreed to take on just one case as a private detective: helping adopted New Zealand woman track down her biological parents in Northern England. But wait! The solution is not nearly as simple as you think!
Women as Victims, Women as Heros
Missing, exploited, and murdered women (and society’s problematic attitude toward women in general), forms a central theme in each of the Jackson Brodie novels, and a threw-line in Jackson’s own character. The rape and murder of his elder sister when they were both teenagers is the defining moment of Jackson’s life. The protectiveness he feels toward the women he cares for, as well as toward the female victims of crimes, provide his primary motivation. As in Case Histories, Jackson remains a haunted strong-jawed straight-man, whose primary role is to illuminate the connections between the rich cast that surrounds him.
Although the text explicitly discussed women’s vulnerability, the implicit story is more complicated. Atkinson’s female characters are powerful, clever, complicated and strong. Jackson isn’t so much a rescuer as a benevolent well-wisher, willing to pitch in where he can. More often than not, the women in his world rescue themselves–from unsatisfying marriages, from dangerous criminals, from men who would do them harm. In the process, they frequently take advantage of Jackson, country song style, stealing, at various times, his money, his car, and his time. The side characters and their crazy criminal antics, together with Atkinson’s delicate balance of humor and tragedy make this series what it is.
Reading Jackson Brodie in Edinburgh
I arrived in Edinburgh in the last week of July as the city geared up for the Fringe Festival in August. As One Good Turn unfolded against the background of the Royal Mile, the military tattoo show, and a terrible tourist hotel drenched in plaid tartan I was right there–and it was such a pleasure! I don’t know why familiarity is such a joy, but my eyes do light up every time I think, “Yes! I know the place! I know just where you mean.”
In When Will There Be Good News, Dr Hunter takes Reggie out for tea on her birthday at he Pizza Express in Stockbridge (p. 172). I passed that Pizza Express nearly every morning on my jog, and when I read that passage I got this wonderful little jolt. It’s so silly, but I suspect, rather universally human. A sense of connection with another, any connection at all, is part of our primal lizard brain.