Classic book review: When Will There Be Good News?

This deeply satisfying Scottish thriller focuses on the hunt for a mother and her young baby.

When Will There Be Good News? By Kate Atkinson Little, Brown & Co. 400 pp., $24.99

[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This book review originally ran on Sept. 6, 2008.] First, the bad news about Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? The accompanying press release states this is the final book in her series about detective Jackson Brodie.

Now, the good news. It’s the most satisfying novel of Atkinson’s trilogy.

As with the previous two installments, “Case Histories” (2004) and “One Good Turn” (2006), Atkinson’s latest mystery is the literary equivalent of an MC Escher drawing in its labyrinthine, yet holistic, architecture. Seemingly unrelated characters, even the most peripheral ones, are inextricably interlinked in a complex matrix.

The common denominator is that they’re each, in their own way, trying to flee the past. That may literally mean running away in the case of Joanna Hunter, an Edinburgh doctor who has disappeared with her young baby. She’s used to running. In the prelude, we discover that the fleet-footed Joanna was the only survivor of a brutal attack on her family by a crazed killer. (The downside of a book: You can’t shut your eyes during the harrowing passages.) Decades later, Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe informs Hunter that the murderer has been paroled and is now missing. “I might go away,” responds Joanna. “Escape, for a bit, just until the fuss dies down.”

But Regina “Reggie” Chase, the household nanny, is convinced that her employer – more of a mother figure to her, really – hasn’t absconded of her own volition. Then again, as police detective Monroe observes, Reggie, may have an overactive imagination. After all, the 16-year-old high school dropout is constantly reading the classics and studying Latin with her tutor, the eccentric Ms. MacDonald. (In another of the novel’s mysteries, a bookworm of an altogether different sort has been carving hollow cavities in MacDonald’s books to hide something.)

Reggie, the novel’s most delightful invention, is infused with Dickensian pluck. Left alone and destitute following her mother’s accidental death, she tries to escape her underclass heritage by inventing a new life for herself. (Reggie, like all the protagonists, is all too aware of class differences – no wonder she admires Jean Renoir’s “La Règle Du Jeu.”)

Where’s Jackson Brodie in all this, you might ask? The detective who can’t resist helping people in spite of his cynical self – in a movie he’d be played by Sean Bean or David Morrissey – is en route to Edinburgh. Then, MacDonald does something that sucks the main characters into the same orbit, changing their lives forever. (I won’t spoil the details.) That includes Monroe, who is as much a loner as Brodie. The hard-bitten policewoman has immersed herself in her investigations to avoid returning home to a husband who makes her feel as constricted as a cellophaned mummy.

So far, so grim. Yet Atkinson’s book is surprisingly funny – it’s a comedy of terrors. Here’s why. Where many crime writers focus on plot engineering first, inserting avatarlike personas into the story-line mechanics almost as an after-thought, Atkinson builds her mysteries from the characters up. She meticulously sculpts such vivid inner lives for each protagonist – their every thought, from existential philosophizing to Seinfeld-like musings about everyday situations, are made privy to us. So when all the characters eventually meet, we intrinsically understand why their interactions are so tragicomic.

So much so, that during the final 100 pages, Atkinson clocks a high giggle-per-page ratio despite impending peril for at least one character.

At this point, the Scottish author has intertwined the disparate plot strands in such an ingenious fashion that it’s almost as if she’s effortlessly walking a tightrope while juggling and humming into a kazoo. Of course, no one could sustain such a feat forever, and Atkinson eventually drops a ball or two. Her two detectives, for instance, make uncharacteristic misjudgments that Atkinson tries to explain away by having them distracted by lovelorn impulses. And the fantastic coincidences eventually pile up like Tetris blocks.

No matter. “When Will There Be Good News?” is so thoroughly entertaining that one is willing to buy Brodie’s frequent proclamation that, “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.” In Atkinson’s series, everything is connected to everything else in a Spinoza-like fashion. It just is. Thankfully, she offsets such tidy resolutions by leaving one or two characters with disheveled conclusions.

One begs Atkinson to reconsider ending the series here. It would be great news, indeed, if she were to pick up the pieces all over again.

Stephen Humphries is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

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