A Queen of Little Hells: The Jackson Brodie Mysteries

Many literary writers think they have a genre novel in them: almost none are right. Whether it’s Sebastian Faulks doing P G Wodehouse, or William Boyd doing James Bond, the results are mixed and don’t enjoy the popularity of the original series. The literary author approaches the genre form with an attitude of whimsy or writing-exercise, only to find that it’s not so easy to write a story that is readable and makes sense. The literary author’s tricks of prose and style don’t help at all in the badlands of genre plotting, and I think genre writers face higher expectations from editors, as well – the hack crime author still has to make sure that the tells aren’t too visible and the continuity holes are plugged up.

Kate Atkinson seems to know this. Her Jackson Brodie novels are full of small parodies of genre conventions, from Martin Canning’s postwar nostalgia detective series, to the TV flagship crime drama Collier in which Jackson’s ex has a long arc. The plots of these novels sometimes stretch credibility, as well. A character topples a dead body out of his hotel window, into a skip – which is taken by the binmen the next morning, a crane operator hauling the skip onto the back of a pickup truck and driving away without comment. The style too is literary, which means there’s a lot of rambling, internal monologue. This is Jackson Brodie in one of his first scenes:

He shouldn’t have thought about coffee because now there was a dull ache in his bladder. When Woman’s Hour finished he put Allison Moorer’s Alabama Song on the CD player, an album which he found comfortingly melancholic. Bonjour Tristesse. Jackson was going to French classes with a view to the day when he could sell up and move abroad and do whatever people did when they retired early. Golf? Did the French play golf? Jackson couldn’t think of the names of any French golfers so that was a good sign because Jackson hated golf. Maybe he could just play boules and smoke himself to death. The French were good at smoking.

Do we need to know all this? Apparently so, because whenever a character looks like they’re about to do something the prose segues again into this babble of thoughts and memories. Plenty of authors do this, but Atkinson is more effective than most because she understands what the inside of people’s heads are like. People have their roles and obligations in life but often these take second place to the personal drama of thought, memory, associations, obsessions running through the mind like a fast flowing river. This technique is played out to heartbreaking effect in the character of Tilly Squires, who plays Collier’s mum in Collier. Tilly is an old woman who could have been a legendary actress, and she’s haunted by a lost child, a lost love, and old betrayals – and as cognitive decline sets in, her waking life is swamped by these intrusive scenes of the past. Cut, the director shouts at her. And Tilly thinks: cut? Cut what?

Because in Kate Atkinson’s world the past is near inescapable. The series opens with Jackson investigating a triptych of cold cases. The first centres around another lost child, whose sisters grow up haunted by this loss. One hides in a convent for the rest of her life. Another, Amelia, stays out in the world but is unable to move forward, she is stuck in a dead end job and can’t form meaningful relationships. (Atkinson gives Amelia a happy ending in this first novel but kills her off a couple of books later, of breast cancer.) Jackson himself is constantly looking back at his own impoverished childhood, of which he is the sole survivor. Everything is broken. Nothing is forgiven. The past is not insurmountable, Atkinson says, but you have to fight every day to escape it. And if you can’t or won’t do that, God help you.

The harsh realities of life in Jackson Brodie’s England are juxtaposed by a reckless, Dickensian sentimentality. Started Early, Took My Dog opens like a classic crime novel of Yorkshire’s cold-blooded old times, the Ripper and the Old Law. But because this is Kate Atkinson, what we get is a whimsical comedy of mistaken identity and the joys of raising children. There’s even authorial comment at times. When a young detective is shot in the line of duty, Atkinson writes that ‘His mother turned off his life support after a week so his funeral was just before Christmas. ‘Makes no difference to me,’ she said. ‘There’ll be no more Christmas now.’ The day after the funeral she jumped off the North Bridge at three in the morning. Give her a medal too.’ Give her a medal. That is pure Atkinson.

(It’s worth mentioning another Dickensian aspect here too – the use of grotesques. Atkinson has working class protagonists but they are strivers, as opposed to members of the working class who are not so much strivers: Reggie Chase’s ne’er-do-well brother Billy, Graham Hatter’s henchman Terence Smith, Neil Hunter’s criminal associates, the estate nominal Kelly Cross – all these are drawn as chav stereotypes that make Lionel Asbo look like Oscar Wilde. Kelly Cross is significant because of the lavish effort Atkinson expends on her appearance – ‘She looked worse close up – flat hair, grey corpse-skin, bloodshot vampire eyes and a junkie edginess to her that made Tracy want to step back’ – and because the ex-cop protagonist in that scene buys Cross’s young daughter from her, out of pity. Cross herself is later found murdered in a shitheap in Harehills.)

For all Started Early is a long haul, it has wonderful insights into the lives people make for themselves. You’re consistently impressed with Atkinson’s use of interiors, the way that a home reflects an inner life: the ex journalists Marilyn Nettles bangs out romance novels in a Whitby house that ‘was shabby, cat fur and dust floating on sunbeams. Nothing had been prepared or painted, or indeed washed, for a long time. Something uncomfortably hard behind the cushion at his back turned out to be an empty bottle of Beefeater. There were clothes draped on the sofa. Jackson didn’t like to look too closely in case they proved to be Marilyn Nettles’s undergarments. He got the impression that she slept, ate and worked in this one room.’

I never got to like Jackson Brodie, with his collection of godawful country music CDs and his smug manly piety and his dead family that he drags around like so many tin cans on a string. In Started Early he goes on a driving tour of England: ‘In the company of the Saab, he had been to Bath, Bristol, Brighton, the Devon coast, down to the toe of Cornwall, up to the Peak District, the Lakes’ and having reached Yorkshire he has a new mission: ‘to visit all of the Betty’s Tea Rooms – Ilkley, Northallerton, two in Harrogate, two in York’ and also enjoys ‘the great cathedral train shed of the National Railway Museum where he paid tribute to the Mallard, Yorkshire-built and the fastest steam train in the world, a record that could never be taken away from her.’ At times it’s like reading a thriller novel written by Alan Partridge – perhaps a version of Alan’s own detective series ‘Swallow,’ branched out into homicide.

But the Jackson Brodie novels are so often not really about Jackson – and you get to love the other characters a lot more. It was a pleasure to see Reggie Chase turn up in Big Sky, having made it as a police detective. And you feel for the other characters more, too. The last days of Laura Wyre are among the most chilling passages I have ever read in contemporary fiction. And the heart breaks for Crystal Holroyd, who thinks she has escaped the shadow of a historic child exploitation ring only to find that she has all along been living in a contemporary of the same horrible network. Big Sky is the latest and the best of the series: all the Jackson Brodie elements are there, but tightened up into a powerful psychological story about evil past and present. Some of the writing recalls Gordon Burn at his scariest.

The doctor in Sophie Hannah’s A Room Swept White describes ‘little hells of the mind’ – that people ‘can’t escape from and can’t talk about to anyone. Often they conceal those hells so expertly, they convince the world they’re happy and normal, even those closest to them.’ With the Jackson Brodie novels Kate Atkinson established herself as a queen of the little hells – and few escape her kingdom.

(Image: Kate Atkinson author site)

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