A Series of Unfortunate Events

It's hard to imagine a novel starting in a more gripping or terrifying way than Kate Atkinson’s new mystery, “When Will There Be Good News?” A stranger with a carving knife ambushes a young family on a deserted country lane, killing mother, daughter, baby, even the dog. The only survivor is the fleet-footed daughter Joanna.

Thirty years later, Joanna is Dr. Joanna Hunter, married with a baby and dog of her own, and the man convicted of the slaughter of her family is being released from prison. On that same day, the ex-­army man and ex-detective Jackson Brodie is accidentally boarding a doomed train, headed not in the direction of London and his new wife, but toward Edinburgh and an old flame, Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe, “the one that got away.” And as fate would have it Reggie Chase, a plucky teenage girl, recently orphaned and wise beyond her years, sits translating the “Iliad” just feet from the railroad tracks. Now there’s a setup.

Fans of Atkinson’s novels like “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” which won the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year, and her two previous literary detective novels, “Case Histories” and “One Good Turn,” both featuring the rugged yet sensitive Brodie, can expect “When Will There Be Good News?” to follow standard ­procedure.

Fact: Atkinson doesn’t write typical crime novels, but literary hybrids.

Exhibit A: Unlike Agatha Christie’s briskly plotted whodunits, Atkinson’s thrillers unfold leisurely. In this case, chapters provide alternating points of view, which, while intimately acquainting us with each character’s back story, can at times derail the novel’s narrative momentum.

Exhibit B: Unlike the hard-boiled dicks and dames in Chandler’s and Hammett’s page-turners, Atkinson’s characters don’t exchange shotgun blasts of dialogue or see the world through a dirty glass. They refer to the works of Browning and Hemingway, and quote Scripture. They sing nursery rhymes and dirges, and crack literary jokes. Louise characterizes her previous relationship with Brodie as being “as chaste as protagonists in an Austen novel. All sense and no sensibility, no persuasion at all.” And struck by the mounting death toll of those close to her, steady-as-she-goes Reggie wonders whether she’s more “troubled teen or angel of death?”

Exhibit C: There will be no corraling of suspects into a darkened parlor. No show-stopping moments of revelation à la Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, where the motive and manner of the crime are exposed. Why, you ask? Because there is little mystery as to who committed the crimes, and few clues as to why. The mysteries Atkinson is most invested in are those of the human heart.

Note: There are, however, elements of the classic mystery that Atkinson does embrace, most notably the coincidence. As Jackson Brodie says,

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“A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.” To wit: When Brodie’s train collides with a car stranded on the tracks, his whole life is literally turned upside down. His wallet, his Blackberry and his memory all go missing. As he sprawls half-dead on the hillside, it is Reggie Chase who breathes life back into him — coincidentally, she learned CPR during her training to become a mother’s helper to Dr. Joanna Hunter. And how curious that Hunter and her son are the same age as her mother and brother were when they were stabbed to death.

More evidence of Atkinson’s fondness for coincidence: It just so happens that the man Reggie has saved is not only a sleuth but “a shepherd,” who “couldn’t rest until the flock was accounted for, all gathered safely in. It was his calling and his curse. Protect and serve.” How fortunate that when Joanna Hunter and her baby suddenly disappear and her handsome ne’er-do-well husband, under suspicion of arson, attempts to stonewall Reggie’s efforts to locate her, Jackson is ready to take the case. Though whether or not Joanna Hunter needs protecting, whether or not she’s still a victim, remains to be seen.

Note: Despite an arresting first chapter, what seems of most interest to Atkinson isn’t the solving of crimes, but the solving of the problem of being alive. What happens to those left behind, the ones held hostage by sorrow and disappointment? How do we pull ourselves out of the rubble of grief? How do we cope with the death of a loved one, transcend a childhood worthy of Dickens, survive the accident of having married the wrong person? How do we get what we need?

Conclusion: While Atkinson engages us with black humor and rich character development and while Reggie Chase is a delight, the absence of sustained suspense begins to fray our connection to the characters. Sensing perhaps that she’s lollygagging, Atkinson sprints for the last 75 pages, delivering a rushed, overly neat ending that, while cleanly tying up the big threads, leaves many questions about the characters and their futures unanswered. My powers of deduction suggest Atkinson’s “When Will There Be Good News?” is, and this is just a theory, a setup for the next, and, I trust, more satisfying Jackson Brodie mystery. Of course I don’t have proof. That’s just a guess.h

By Kate Atkinson

388 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $24.99

Elissa Schappell is editor at large for Tin House magazine, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the author of “Use Me,” a novel.

A version of this review appears in print on , on Page BR15 of theSunday Book Reviewwith the headline: A Series of Unfortunate Events.


Category: Review

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