Big Sky: Appealingly rule-defying private investigator makes a comeback

It’s been nine years since Kate Atkinson’s last Jackson Brodie novel, and in Big Sky the private investigator returns as taciturn, haunted and appealingly rule-defying as ever. He’s still a magnet for trouble and the troubled, still the self-appointed saviour of lost girls, his life marked with grief for the one he couldn’t save: his sister Niamh who was raped and murdered when she was a teenager.

There are so many lost girls in Big Sky it’s like Atkinson is winking at Brodie fans, and such playfulness is part of her style. In 1995, her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, announced the uniqueness of her darkly comic voice and since then her fiction has continued to explore difficult subjects in prose that is as witty as it is queasily compulsive.

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Few other writers produce such literary page-turners, and while some of her structures are more mesmeric than others – it’s hard to beat the inventiveness of Life After Life, where the protagonist dies and is reborn repeatedly, experiencing alternative versions of similar events – she is very good at pulling off intricately constructed plots.

In this respect, as in others, Big Sky is classic Atkinson. Set in a seaside village in North Yorkshire, it has an unsurprisingly expansive cast. Multiple stories are woven into the narrative, many of which converge and overlap. The main plot revolves around a sex trafficking network whose members lure women to the UK then kidnap, drug and enslave them, forcing them into prostitution. The network has its roots in a paedophile ring, ‘the magic circle’, that once included celebrities, MPs and judges, and is currently being investigated retrospectively by detective constables Ronnie Dibicki and Reggie Chase – sharp, unflappable women, a Cagney and Lacey-esque duo who do as much rescuing as Jackson.

There are several other subplots: a young girl gets into a car and disappears; a woman is battered to death with a golf club and her estranged husband is the chief suspect; Jackson is hired by Crystal, a survivor of the magic circle, to find out why a silver BMW is following her. Trauma is everywhere in Big Sky. Many of the characters have been abused or have had family members die violently or by suicide. They remind Jackson of his sister and himself.

The father of an adult daughter, he is now also co-parenting his 13-year-old son, Nathan, whose ego is “big enough to swallow planets whole”. His relationship with Nathan and with Nathan’s mother, Julia, is full of unexpressed tenderness – a counterbalance to his constant vigilance and very particular form of workaholism. Julia has the measure of Jackson and gets most of the best lines. She’s a voice in his head, commenting on his thoughts and behaviour, present but out of reach.

An actress, she plays a pathologist in a police procedural called Collier – another wink from Atkinson. Since the last Brodie book – Started Early, Took My Dog – Jackson has had a TV incarnation; Jason Isaacs played him in the ITV series Case Histories. In Big Sky, he visits the Collier set a couple of times where the actor playing the on-screen detective sometimes pumps him, the ‘real’ detective, for information.

Atkinson is a reader’s writer and Big Sky is full of literary references – Ronnie and Reggie even call their investigation into the paedophile ring ‘Operation Villette’ – but they’re made with such a lightness of touch that they never undermine the fictional house of cards that Atkinson is building.

The coastal setting – with treacherous cliffs, tinkling ice cream vans, touristy kitsch and dog-friendly cafes – is evocatively seedy and functions as more than a backdrop.

During the school holidays, Crystal’s teenage stepson works in Transylvania World in Whitby, where the original Count Dracula landed, and also in a theatre in Scarborough that hosts third-rate variety acts, including a comic who was once in the magic circle.

In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, Atkinson explores the dangers of nostalgia; a few of the more unpleasant characters are Brexiteers and Ukip voters. Scarborough is “Savile territory,” Jackson reflects as he drives along the esplanade, where there was once a plaque saying “Savile’s View”.

The figure of Jimmy Savile hangs over the novel as a reminder that predation is still rampant, still enabled and still hidden.

In Big Sky, the epitome of white, middle-class England – a solicitor with a lasagne-cooking wife, a rugby-playing son and a horsey daughter – sees women from elsewhere as less than human. “She’ll just be one more Thai druggie whore,” a man says as he dumps the body of a trafficked woman from the Philippines into the sea.

Atkinson gives such shocking moments the room they need but the novel is as much about survival as it is about brutality and abuse.

The ending may be overly reliant on coincidence but because Big Sky is so clever, so current and so full of personality, it doesn’t even matter.

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