I bought this book almost a year ago now, while on vacation in Palm Springs. It was on a baragain table for $5, and since I had been wanting to read it, it was too good to pass up. It is not, however, a book for reading while on vacation in Palm Springs. I read the first few pages, and put it into my suitcase for later.
Atkinson is a vivid writer, and within a very few pages, I was deeply into her world--a world that is fundamentally at odds with sunny desert vacation, I might add. A family--mother, two young girls, a baby in a stroller, are struggling home through hedgerowed lanes from a shopping trip. It is summer in rural Scotland, and grocery shopping requires a two mile walk from the house to the bus stop, a long bus ride to the village, which includes wrestling the baby and the stroller onto the bus, the several block hike to the grocery, and then the whole thing again in reverse.
Driving is not possible, because the father, Howard Mason, has driven off with the car to go back to London to be with his mistress. He had moved the family out to the country so that he could write his novels, but after six months of hobby farming (all disastrous--even the bees froze in their hives over the winter) and being cooped up with his young family, he had had enough and ran away from home. Which left his artist wife stuck in the country, where she had never wanted to be, struggling with raising three small children alone.
So that's where I stopped while on vacation, and thus I stopped before they met a man walking the other way who pulled out a knife and killed them all, except the middle child, a six year old named Joanna. Joanna who escaped into the abutting wheat field and was the sole survivor. Like I said: not vacation reading. I suppose I should have figured that out by the title.
The book then skips ahead thirty years, and in typical Atkinson fashion, we are thrown in medias res into the lives of new and different characters. A man, who has disguised himself as a "typical tourist" is lying in wait for recess at a Yorkshire school. In particular, he wants to see a very young boy who is only about three years old. Is this man a kidnapper? Pedophile? What does he want? The ominous mood builds up, and when the particular boy shows up, the unnamed man lures him close by offering a ball. We are told the man ponders whether he could grab the boy and escape in his rented car before anyone could stop him. What is going on? The boy gets close enough to receive the ball, and the man ruffles the boys hair. The boy leaps away and the man backs off--politely.
Only after we have watched the boy return to the safety of his school do we learn that the man is Jackson Brodie--the former cop who was the lynchpin of two previous Atkinson novels: Case Histories and One Good Turn. Brodie suspects that the boy is his son, although the boy's mother denies it. Brodie has pulled some hairs for the boy's head and plans to get a DNA analysis to confirm his paternity. This creepy subterfuge tells us a lot about Brodie--he has some good instincts, and he wants to be connected to the child he believes is his, but he goes about it in such a creepy way. Frankly, if I were is ex-girlfriend, I'd insist the child wasn't his too--there is just something so off-putting about Brodie's inability to live normally.
We then meet Reggie Chase and Dr. Hunter. It takes a while, in the good old Atkinson way, to piece together the picture of these people. Reggie is short for Regina, and is a sixteen year old girl--although it takes quite a few pages to even get her gender straight. She's rather a lost girl: no father in the picture, and her mother recently died while on holiday in Spain with a new boyfriend. Reggie has an older brother, who has gone bad in a thousand petty and not-so-petty ways. Reggie herself is smart and capable, and had won a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school. But she never fit in with the girls there, and she dropped out at the earliest opportunity. However, she values education, and has managed to arrange private tutoring with a former teacher from the school--Ms. McDonald, who no longer at the school because she is dying of a brain tumor.
The most normal part of Reggie's life is her job as "mother's helper" for Dr. Hunter. Dr. Hunter has a baby and Reggie comes in every day to take care of the baby until Dr. Hunter comes home from her medical practice. The three of them make a lovely family--the odd one out is Dr. Hunter's husband, Neil, who is an "entrepeneur," a word which here seems to mean "a shady operator."
Then we meet Louise, a detective in the Borders and Lothian police force--which finally makes it clear that we are in Edinburgh. Louise is married to a lovely man, a surgeon, and she is chafing at her newly affluent life. Louise is herself a cliche, but a well executed one--the cop who is already married to her job, unable to relax into civilian life, fierce and grimly determined to keep the world safe, and frustrated by the impossibility of it. Louise shows up at Dr. Hunter's house, and that is where the threads start to come together.
Dr. Hunter, it turns out, is Joanna Mason Hunter, the little girl survivor of the massacre thirty years ago, and Inspector Louise Monroe has come around to warn her that Andrew Decker--the man who murdered her family--has been released from prison and presumably loose in Edinbugh.
Jackson Brodie is also headed north--by mistake, as he meant to take the King's Cross train to London, not from London. His trip is stopped in dramatic fashion, as the train derails. The threads come together: the derailment happens mere yards from where Reggie is studying for her A levels at Ms. McDonald's house. Ms. McDonald herself is killed when the train hits her car that had stalled on the tracks. Reggie--having learned CPR and first aid from Dr. Hunter, in case she needed it for the baby--happens upon Jackson Brodie and saves his life. Brodie somehow ends up with Andrew Decker's driver's license and loses his own wallet, and Louise finds him in the hospital. Of course, the two of them had worked together in the past and should really be with each other, but have managed (in true cop fashion) to screw up their private lives as well.
Louise has two other cases on her plate--Alison Needler, whose ex-husband showed up at their daughter's seventh birthday party with a pistol and killed two women before being scared off. Alison has been moved to a safe house, but everyone expects David Needler to come back. She also has the little matter of Neal Hunter, Joanna Hunter's husband, who is under investigation for arson. She goes around to talk to him about it the morning after the train wreck, and he's particularly jumpy about his wife. She's not there, the baby's not there, Reggie isn't there. Dr. Hunter has gone missing.
Neal called Reggie early that morning, with a not--very-believable story that Dr. Hunter and the baby drove down to Yorkshire to care for a sick aunt and wouldn't need her for a few days. Reggie doesn't believe this--Dr. Hunter would have called herself! The whole thing is completely out of character. So she goes over to the Hunter home, offering to walk the dog, since Mr. Hunter is so busy. Mr. Hunter tells her to keep the dog for the duration--again, suspiciously jumpy. Reggie, bless her fiercely loyal heart, plays girl detective and finds a number of highly suspicious anomolies:
- She left her cell phone behind--the one she calls "her lifeline."
- She apparently left barefoot and without changing out of her work suit
- She left without her purse, which contained her asthma inhaler, her driving glasses, and her Filofax
- Her car is still in the garage
- The dog found the baby's blanket crushed in the mud and apparently bloodied
- She overheard a conversation between Neal and a thug threatening him that implied Dr. Hunter had been kidnapped.
This, as you can tell, is a lot of plot. There is a lot more as well, but what Atkinson does so marvellously well is tell this thriller story with a novelists touch. Reggie isn't really Nancy Drew--she's a girl with a troubled life, much of which we see vividly, trying to hold on to the parts that are sane. Atkinson reveals Reggie's life in a leisurely way, peeling back the layers and showing us her relationship with her brother, the tragedy of her mother's death, her relationship with her tutor, even substantial chunks of her studies--Latin translations, literature reading. Reggie is a great character--tough but not jaded, honest (mostly) and someone who has admirable inner strength and is also really kind and likable.
Jackson Brodie is also displayed as on his own life journey--we see his lonely life, his desperate longing for connection with his children, his sadness over the way his past relationships have failed. Even his being on the train that derails is a marvelously detailed set piece: the other passengers on the train, his slowly dawning realization that he's going north instead of south, the way his military training kicks in when the train carriage falls over. He's an ex-cop, at loose ends, oddly disconnected from his new marriage. Again, Atkinson has a light touch as she reveals his story, even making his near-death experience something that bears close reading.
Louise is a bit of a cliche, but Atkinson deftly limns her discomfort with a comfortable life. She feels not good enough for her new husband, and there is a lovely playful scene as she calls to switch homeowner's insurance. "Do you have any jewels, furs, or guns in the house?" And Louise finds herself momentarily daydreaming about a different life, one in which she wears jewels and furs while using guns to rob banks: a Bonnie and Clyde fantasy far removed from the staid domestic life she has married into. And, honestly, one closer to her real character than the life of French Toast and Mexican raspberries on Wedgewood china we see her living.
It is this deftness with character that is so striking in this novel. Brodie spends about twenty four hours in hospital after the train crash, yet Atkinson memorably depicts two nurses and three different doctors in the briefest of exchanges. Howard Mason, the bastard who left his family without a car in rural Scotland thirty years ago is fleshed out and dispatched in a devastating summary of his career with the concluding snarky comment that "all his books were out of print." Atkinson makes Joanna Hunter and Reggie Chase so well rounded and so believable--as well as so likeable--that when the novel ends, I was deeply satisfied by the resolution of their stories.
If there is a weakness, it's that Atkinson has attempted too much plot. After I closed the book, I found myself niggling at the loose ends and the glossed over holes in the story. So with the warning that SPOILERS LIE AHEAD, I will attempt to wrap up this book.
Joanna Hunter has, indeed, been kidnapped. Her dodgy husband has come to the attention of a Glaswegian mobster who wants his money, or all of Neal Hunter's businesses signed over, and is holding Joanna and the baby hostage to get it. Reggie guilts Brodie into leaving hospital to go find Joanna, and first they head to Yorkshire to check out the alleged sick aunt. There is a "humorous" mix up, when Brodie is arrested for being Andrew Decker, sorted out only because Louise and Marcus (her assistant) turn up and pull rank, dragging Brodie and Reggie back to Edinburgh. Again, however, Atkinson brilliantly uses the in-car cross-talk to flesh out the characters.
Back in Edinburgh, Brodie and Reggie take Joanna's car and tail the bad guys, following them to a remote farmhouse. The bad guys go in and come running out, yapping on the cell phone and rapidly leaving the scene. Joanna has managed to kill both the thugs guarding her and freed herself. Brodie torches the crime scene, then returns Joanna, Reggie and the baby to the Hunter house. There Joanna cleans up, confuses the police trying to make the kitchen a crime scene, and stonewalls Louise's questions about what happened. Why? Because she wants normalcy for her baby, so he will never be grist for the tabloids.
Neal is shown to be a complete putz, as it is apparent to everybody that he should have signed over all his businesses and then sued to get them back, rather than risking his family's lives for four days as he tried to come up with the money. He's also arrested for the arson and will not likely be allowed back into Joanna's life.
Meanwhile, David Needler shows up again, as predicted, but after one too many panic button calls, so Marcus goes over to check on the house and gets shot in the chest. Which sucks, but is kind of a throw-away plot point. Needler kills himself as well. Louise is pissed, because she wanted him to die slowly and painfully at her hand. Louise also decides to wait until Hogmanay to leave her husband, because his first wife died on Christmas Eve, so at least he won't have lost two wives on the same holiday. Wait, what?
Brodie finally gets back to London. He is still in love with Louise, but now he's closed the door on any possible relationship with her because of his torching of the farmhouse. He can't ever tell her what happened or what he did. He gets back to Heathrow in time to meet his wife's plane from the States, but she's not on it. He checks other airlines, other flights, but not only is she not there, there is no record of her. In fact, there is no record of her at her workplace, no confirmation of her anywhere. She has, however, cleaned out his bank account. That's right: It Was All A Dream, I Mean Scam. The whirlwind romance and marriage was a four month investment in a plan to take the million pounds he had inherited a few years back. Fortunately, the money from the sale of a house in France was delayed, and showed up after she had taken everything else, so at least poor Brodie was not destitute.
But his bad luck didn't end there. No, when he finally got back to the flat in Covent Garden, there was a dead man lying in the living room who had blown his brains out with a Russian gun. He also had Brodie's wallet and ID on him. The omnipresent Andrew Decker, apparently. Turns out that Joanna Hunter had visited Decker in prison, about a month before his release, and supposedly whatever she had said lead him to kill himself. After being in a train crash where he switched identities with Brodie? Why? This part made no sense to me at all.
Reggie still has a terrible home life--during the course of the novel, her brother Billy has gotten himself in deep trouble with some very dangerous thugs, told them his name was "Reggie" and gave him the real Reggie's home address. So in addition to having her mother die, her tutor die, her tutor's dog die, identifying her tutor's body in the hospital and arranging for her funeral, walking over dead bodies at the train crash site, saving Jackson Brodie's life, finding and rescuing Dr. Hunter and the baby--she goes home to find the flat trashed and urine and feces spread around, she is attacked by the thugs who did it, she goes back another day to find they have set fire to the flat, and they attack her again, and she finds the heroin her brother stole and then stashed at Ms. McDonald's house. And after all of this, she has the presence of mind to place the kilo of heroin inside Ms. McDonald's casket for cremation, thus eliminating all traces of it. However, it looks like she might move in with Dr. Hunter as a permanent mother's helper.
Like I said, that is a lot of plot, and as superb a writer as she is, Atkinson can't really make all of it credible in a mere 400 pages. Why did Dr. Hunter go visit Decker in prison, and what did she say to him that made him kill himself? And why didn't he do it before he swapped identities with Brodie? And isn't it just a little too much of a coincidence that it was Brodie's wallet he stole--of all the possible people he might have met between his release and his death? What was the point of the identity theft? And why did we have to have the Needler subplot anyway? It was tangential at best, and a bit overly melodramatic at worst, the way it resulted in the death of Marcus. And what was the point of the "humorous" scenes of Brodie trying to rent a car with only Decker's driver's license, and then getting arrested in Yorkshire? Did the terminal brain cancer tutor really have to be the cause of the train accident that brought Reggie and Brodie together? And did her dog really have to die in his sleep that night? And did Reggie really have to have so many Major Plot Events in her story? Did Brodie really have to also be the victim of a marriage scam at the same time he was the victim of Decker's identity theft? How many crimes can happen to how many people simultaneously before it's not possible to suspend disbelief?
It's this large, baggy plot that undermines the book. To some degree, I am willing to accept outlandish coincidences, but at some point one has to draw the line. And I am afraid that Atkinson sailed past this line for me, although admittedly not until after I had finished the book--she is that good of a writer.
Oh, and remember that boy that Brodie was so creepily stalking at the beginning of the novel? By the end, he's apparently decided not to do that DNA analysis after all. But instead, we find out that a 19 year old Brodie is the volunteer who found the six year old Joanna Mason in the wheat field.
Oh yeah. Just a few too many coincidences. Even Charles Dickens would agree, and he never met an unlikely coincidence he didn't find a way to use. I still enjoyed this book; the writing and characterization is outstanding. Just too many plots.