Big Sky

Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, £20

If he existed in real life – and sometimes you feel he must – Jackson Brodie, Kate Atkinson’s Private Investigator, would be unlikely to read this book. “He liked his crime fiction to be cheerfully unrealistic, although in fact he hardly read anything any more in any genre. Life was too short and Netflix was too good.”

But perhaps he would enjoy Atkinson’s far from miserabalist take on the woes of the world. As with her other, standalone novels, Atkinson’s crime series walks the fine line between cheerfully unrealistic and macabre. Beneath the tightrope on which her plots are strung lies an overstuffed mattress, as if to cushion a fall. This safety net is filled with the back stories of a multitudinous cast, authorial asides, extraneous facts and anecdotes so unrelenting in their delivery it is sometimes difficult to detect where it’s all heading.

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Here, Atkinson fills in enough of the essentials about Brodie that you don’t need to have read the earlier novels (or watched the TV series). What you do require, though, is the concentration of a chess master. Plunging into Big Sky is like being in the company of someone who cannot resist giving you a potted history of everyone they mention in passing – where born, to whom married or not, number of kids, job, clothes, breed of dog, car, house etc. She does it well, with a knack for capturing the essence of an individual that can be unsettling: all of us, it seems, conform to a stereotype. With only a few exceptions, most of the cast make up in a plethora of detail what they lack in personal depth.

It’s probably better that way. Big Sky is about a people trafficking racket in which young women from eastern Europe are lured to eastern Yorkshire to become the playthings of deviants. Brodie, now living in a cottage by the sea, is kept company occasionally by his son Nathan and the family dog. In the process of trying to catch an online paedophile, he becomes embroiled in the wider hunt for these brutes.

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Set around the Whitby coastline, the main plot of Big Sky kicks off with news of the impending release of a notorious sex offender, whose partner in crime conveniently committed suicide. This pair – Carmody and Bassani – had been in the same line of business as Jimmy Saville and on much the same pitch. DI Reggie Chase and DI Ronnie Dibicki, two petit pois in a pod, are on the trail of a rumoured “third man”, who evaded discovery when they were caught. Their paths cross Brodie’s as he is hired by Candace, the glamorous, resourceful wife of a dodgy businessman, to investigate who is stalking her. As he does so, the murkiness of Candace’s past is gradually revealed.

When distressing deeds must be shown, Atkinson’s briskness and economy are more disturbing than lingering descriptions. Mercifully, these are few. Indeed, there are so many lovingly-drawn scenes, it’s as if she can hardly bring herself to address the pitch black heart of her novel. Far more to her taste is social comedy and sarcasm. A threesome of golfers, in the opening chapters, is a droll parody of men and their clubs, niblets or otherwise. Jackson’s running interior monologue is peppered with remembered or imagined remarks by his former partner, the actress Julia, which punctuate the ordinary with affectionate bile.

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Elsewhere, her depiction of the bookworm teenager Harry, whose mother fell off a cliff to her death, is atypically tender, though even he is not spared Atkinson’s gallows humour. Thinking of his mother’s final moments, when she had been walking their dog, Harry sometimes “wondered if Tipsy had seen her when she plummeted past, if they had exchanged a look of surprise.” Flashes of tastelessness are what make Atkinson’s penchant for sudden death bearable, lifting them from noir to notice-worthy. A sex trafficker babysitting newly arrived girls takes a call from his wife. In the background she detects a television. “Is that Alexander Armstrong’s voice I can hear? Are you watching Pointless?” The banality of evil indeed.

Atkinson’s instinct to lighten the mood at every opportunity makes for an uneven atmosphere in terms of crime drama, yet she manages, just about, to control the mood sufficiently to allow sardonicism, poignancy and appalling acts against humanity to share the same page. Stylistically, her conversational tone is winning, less so her parenthetical tic, which needs reining in. “The tide was currently halfway out, or halfway in, Jackson couldn’t tell which. (Was this a glass-half-full/half-empty kind of thing?)” Added to which, her characters have terrible problems concentrating. Even in extremis their minds wander, filling us in on back story when what is required is a good deal more focus, momentum and drive.

In terms of plot, all roads return to the threesome of golfers and their lawyer chum, only one of whom appears not to be grossly venal. Former soldier Vince is barely tolerated by them, and not at all by himself: “An unemployed divorced man nudging fifty – was there a lower life form on the planet?” When Vince’s estranged wife is found murdered, all eyes swivel towards him and his golfing buddies. In fact, the golf club is already under suspicion, since Carmody and Bassani had been members.

There is so much context, so many personalities and plot strands in Big Sky, quite apart from the crimes at its centre, it seems the author could happily do away with the connecting thread and simply focus on people, and what makes them tick. This is a good thing if you like immersive fiction, less good if you require the unflagging propulsion of a crime novel. At times Atkinson almost makes the reader dig for the story.

Harry, now being raised by his callous father and kindly stepmother Candace, turns to Mrs Gaskell’s novel Cranford for comfort. “He liked Cranford. It was a safe place where small events were accorded great dramatic significance.” You can’t help feeling that, apart from her love of sudden death, Atkinson strongly shares that inclination.