Thirty years ago, Lance Corporal Jackson Brodie and his fellow soldiers were called out to do a search and rescue for a little girl lost. Six-year-old Joanna Mason had been walking along a quiet country lane with her mother, sister, and baby brother when they were attacked by a mad man wielding a knife. As her mother fought with the man, she screamed at Joanna to run. Joanna did and she was the only one who survived. After an extensive search, she was found and rescued by Jackson Brodie.
Now, Joanna is a successful doctor married to a man who may be a fraud and a criminal. She has a baby son, the same age as her brother when he was killed, and she learns that the man who killed her family is to be released from prison. It looks like Joanna's life is falling apart again.
Jackson Brodie's life has taken a radical turn for the better. He thinks. He has no money worries thanks to a bequest and he is recently remarried to a woman he had only known for two months, but he is happy. He married after he learned that Louise, the Detective Inspector of the Lothian and Borders Police that he met in the last book, was also getting married. He and Louise had a strong mutual attraction, but neither of them could ever admit it to the other.
Louise is the second wife of a good and patient man whose first wife was a paragon of virtue. A paragon Louise is not, and the marriage isn't quite what she had signed up for.
Joanna has a teenage mother's helper named Regina - Reggie. Reggie is the latest in Atkinson's fascinating characters. She has an intellectual bent and is working on a translation of the Iliad. She's also charming, funny, compassionate, self-reliant, and always prepared for emergencies as she was taught by the doctor. When there is a terrible train crash behind the house where she is, she rushes to the scene and saves a man's life. Guess whose.
As is her trademark, Kate Atkinson once again manages to bring all these disparate, seemingly unrelated stories - plus others that I haven't mentioned - together in a satisfying denouement. In doing so, she shines a light into the darkest corners of her characters' secrets and inhibitions but she does it always with compassion.
This novel, like the two earlier ones in the series that I've read, is full of wit and wisdom and is sprinkled with philosophical meditations on life, death, love and loss. It is a darkly humorous book, but not so dark as to ever be depressing, in spite of the terrible events it relates.
These books get categorized as detective novels or crime novels because they feature a detective - or ex-detective - and the stories do involve crime. But to call them that is to try to fit them into too tight a box. They are literary fiction that examines the human condition. The plots are intricate enough to satisfy the most demanding reader and they are purely character-driven.
The tone of the books is the most important thing and the tone is one of sardonic wit and amazement at the foibles of human beings, even human beings who should know much better. True, the writer has chosen to tell her story in the form of a thriller and it is an unputdownable page-turner at that, but it is really a satisfying medley of thriller, mystery, crime fiction, and literary fiction. Maybe we need a new category. We could just call it "Atkinsons."
In the end, Kate Atkinson did not tie all of her characters' stories up in a neat little knot, so we'll have to move on to the next book in the series to find out where all of this is going. We can only hope that there will be several more entries to come.