The Jackson Brodie Series, Kate Atkinson – Part 1

Or–the special joy of reading a book set in the place where you are

Last month, I took a trip that included a visit to my company’s UK offices in Cambridge and a conference held in Raleigh, with a holiday in Edinburgh in between. A few days before I left, I met up with some former colleagues for drinks and snacks on the patio at Gotts in the San Francisco Ferry Building.

There, a friend and fellow true crime aficionado breathlessly recommended Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series to me. I’ve read some of Atkinson’s more recent work but never realized she had a straight-up detective series.

“It’s even set there,” my friend told me, after I mentioned my trip to the UK.

“Where? Edinburgh?” I asked, already thinking ahead to my holiday weekend.


Later, I realized, she meant both my British destinations: the first book takes place in Cambridge during a record-breaking heat wave, the second and third in Edinburgh. I only wish Jackson Brodie visited Raleigh (although I realize that would be a stretch).

I arrived in Cambridge, also in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave. My usual all-black airplane outfit had backfired. I felt disgusting and overheated. Fresh off an overnight flight and a three hour train ordeal, but still hours too early to check into my Airbnb, I plopped down on a bench at Fort Saint George, opened up the Kindle app on my phone, and started the first Jackson Brodie.

Atkinson’s rare sensitivity to the victims of the crimes she portrays, the humanism of her characterizations, and her absurdist humor elevates the Jackson Brodie novels above the average paperback mystery. Each book in the series features several interlinking plot lines, set in a ruthless world of unbelievable coincidence. In the first novel, Case Histories (2004) private detective Jackson Brodie works concurrently on three cold cases: the 1970 disappearance of a toddler, the 1994 stabbing of a teenage girl in an office, and the 1979 ax-murder of a man by his wife.

Jackson himself, the former soldier and erstwhile policeman turned private detective at the heart of the series, is a bit of a one-note character, “built on spare parts from Raymond Chandler novels and Willie Nelson songs” as one reviewer phrased it. With a tragic past, tough-guy facade, and soft underbelly, Jackson is unfailingly sympathetic toward others. It’s this susceptibility that drives much of the action. He’s unable to resist the urge to help–especially to women and children, but really anyone he perceives as vulnerable. Jackson’s defining characteristic is his protective instinct, what Atkinson calls his “sheepdog” tendency. (That, and a love of country crooners, especially Trisha Yearwood.) His compulsion to serve and protect keeps him engaged in other people’s tragedies, even when, later in the series, he leaves private detection behind.

Unusually for the hero of a mystery series, Jackson isn’t an especially brilliant detective. He can be dogged. Atkinson gives the impression that he was a good cop. People seem to want to confide in him. Yet more often then not, he blunders into his cases (and their solutions) through a combination of good luck and bad timing.

While Jackson himself is something of a foil, the characters who populate the mysteries are original and compelling. In Case Histories, my heart broke for Theo Wynee, each time he appeared. I loved Amelia, with her eccentric stodginess, her wildly transparent misreading of social situations, her prudery and judgmental bitterness. It’s their complicated, imperfect stories that make the series such an engrossing and pleasurable read.

The first three books were perfect page-turners, absorbing, charming, and unpredictable–but my favorite part was being in the places as I read.

Jackson Brodie in Cambridge

“In the afternoon, a bolt of lightning cracked the flat skies above Cambridge, signaling the end of the heat wave.”

Case Histories, p. 39

I saw this! After work one day, miserably hot and floating on jet lag, I went for a walk to see the colleges and Bridge of Sighs, and stumbled instead upon an outdoor Shakespeare festival. A different play in every college garden. I stopped in to watch Midsummer Night’s Dream at Saint John’s, and never did make it to the main tourist district.

A few days later, with the 90 degree heat still making my tiny rented house unbearable, I decided another play was in order. I scraped together a picnic of rolls, prosciutto, olives, fruit and wine at the Mitcham’s Corner CO-OP, and took myself over to Robinson for Henry IV, Part One. While we were all seated in the grass waiting for the play to begin, a sudden downpour sent the audience running for cover under a nearby tree. It was like being back in New York, or even the Midwest, hard hot rain and a sky full of lightning. We were all soaked, but it wasn’t cold.

Later, when Falstaff says of his troupes:

They’ll fill a pit as well as better.

Act 4, Scene 2

I thought of Jackson Brodie in the Falklands, a sixteen-year-old soldier. Shakespeare really is timeless. No matter the country and era, the aristocracy always seems perfectly happy to let poor teenagers die in vast numbers for dubious causes.

I couldn’t help but agree with this sentiment:

“And the bikes, why did people think bikes were a good thing? Why were cyclists so smug? Why did cyclists ride on pavements where there were perfectly good cycle lanes?”

Case Histories, pg 161

Yes! My God, Jackson, yes. I initially thought renting a bike might be a good idea. A very Cambridge idea. Unfortunately, the whole left-side-of-the road thing throws me off more than it should. Also, I witnessed the bloody aftermath of a cycle collision on the Jesus Green. Paramedics were called. That was enough for me.

“…all of a sudden he found himself driving straight into the back of a Ford Galaxie that was stationary at traffic lights by Fitzbillies on Trumpington Street.” pg 261

Case Histories, pg 261

My colleague, who, like Jackson, is from the North, introduced me to Fitzbillies and it’s famous Chelsea Roll. As I read this passage, I could picture the traffic lights Jackson plowed through in his Alpha Romero, after the breaks were cut.


Soundtrack for this post

On a Bus to Saint Cloud

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