Eye In the Sky
Book Review by Jude Joseph Lovell
I’ve been running into the English crime novelist Kate Atkinson’s books for years. More than one reader has recommended her work to me, and I’ve seen her titles appear many times on various “Best of the Year” lists for fiction. While this would normally pique my interest, I’ve been hesitant because I’m not often drawn to crime or mystery novels. Even the best of them seem to follow similar tropes, and I sometimes tire of the recurring “flawed hero” character that seems a prerequisite with these books.
But late last year, when Atkinson’s titles started popping up on “Best of the Decade” lists, too, I thought I might reconsider. Rather than start at the beginning, I chose Big Sky, Atkinson’s latest novel, published last summer. It turns out that this novel was the re-introduction of her own “flawed hero,” a former policeman turned private investigator called Jackson Brodie, who had gone missing from her books for most of a decade.
Happily, Atkinson overcame my expectations. It’s not that Big Sky doesn’t contain some of the hallmarks I was anticipating: short chapters, a multitude of characters who are hard to keep straight, and a convoluted plot that I frankly do not have a clue how the writer developed. This novel checks off these boxes and maybe a few more. But there are a number of clever variations on the model that I found intelligent and surprising. For me the result is a book that blows fresh air into a stale wing of the fiction manse.
Discovering this didn’t require some sort of probing analysis. Atkinson immediately signals her intention in Big Sky to shake things up in a deft, one-page prologue that finds her grizzled ex-cop appearing to elope with a youngish bride. But this truncated opening ends tantalizingly with Brodie declaring to some bystanders, “It’s not what it looks like.” It’s a brilliant hook, one that can also apply to much of the story that follows.
Not being familiar myself with Jackson Brodie, who of course is recognizable to fans of Atkinson’s previous novels, the writer gave me enough information to understand that he’s well into middle age, past his prime perhaps, but with some tricks still hidden up his sleeve and a well-trained instinct sharpened by many years of hard-earned experience. A Silver Sager, in other words.
As the novel opens, he’s doing basic P.I. legwork, having been hired by a suspicious wife to track her philandering husband’s movements in a coastal English village. At the same time he’s grappling with his actress ex-wife, a grown daughter with whom he’s experiencing communication issues, and his frustratingly aloof teenage son. From here the story slowly unfolds and widely expands.
The most interesting choice Atkinson makes in Big Sky for this reader is the way she deploys her main character in service of the book’s structure. In many crime thrillers with private investigator types, I find, the “flawed hero” is most of the story. So much of the writer’s effort seems depleted by making this one individual as “nuanced” as possible that most of the other characters suffer.
In Big Sky, Brodie is used differently. He’s a bit like the sun: the large-ish center of the story of whom we don’t learn a lot, but around whom revolves a cluster of diverse and interesting satellite characters, connected with him one way or another via a curious, almost gravitational pull.
Thus we encounter, in tight, interweaving chapters: three middle-aged golfing buddies, two of whom are old friends and successful business partners, the other a hapless type whose wife is divorcing him and who desperately wants in on the others’ action; a trophy wife who turns a blind eye to the source of her husband’s wealth while outpacing her own troubled past; two young, hungry female detectives tentatively entertaining a personal friendship while tediously investigating old crimes; and a truly nefarious lawyer who lures young, single women from Europe into a horrifying sex-trade and human-trafficking ring.
Atkinson strings all of these complicated and seemingly disparate lines together with great dexterity and patience. Along the way she delivers crisp repartee between characters of all stripes, drops amusing and timely references to popular culture, and wryly comments on things like technology and generational disharmony.
At one point, while tracking a shady figure in a silver BMW, Brodie finds himself bitterly critiquing the other guy’s ride, only to realize that “a man driving a mid-range Toyota wasn’t in a position to judge.” Later, the trophy wife contemplates the outset of middle age in this manner: “It was depressing to think she had reached an age when she could say, ‘When I was young.’ Although not as depressing as remembering what it had been like to be young.”
By the time Big Sky wheels around to revealing what was really going down in its short prelude, after pulling off a startling magic act to resolve the expansive web of characters and storylines, it becomes apparent that Atkinson’s cool eye has been overseeing everything throughout. On top of that, she has executed her sleight of hand with humor, style, and great intelligence.
As someone who tries to write fiction himself but often struggles with the mental ingenuity it demands, I can only conclude by adding a second cliché to the prologue. Not only is Big Sky not what it looks like, it’s also not as easy as it looks.
Photo by Lucas Benjamin @aznbokchoy (Michigan)
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.