In the comments to my review of One Good Turn, Steph said that Kate Atkinson is not really a mystery writer — she’s written several straight literary novels and a book of short stories, and the mystery series is something of a departure for her. I said that I thought that anyone who writes mysteries is really a mystery writer, and I still think that. But I see what Steph was getting at. When Will There Be Good News? has no more to do with your ordinary, pleasurable, jigsaw-puzzle detective stories than a glass of great, complex, aged Bordeaux has with Welch’s grape juice. They’re made from the same elements, but they leave an awfully different taste.
Joanna Mason was only six years old when she witnessed the brutal murder of her entire family. Today, thirty years later, she has built a new life for herself — marriage, a successful practice as a GP, an intensely beloved baby — when she hears that the man who killed her family is getting out of prison. Reggie, Joanna’s sixteen-year-old nanny, is no stranger to trouble and grief: her mother recently drowned on holiday, and she’s taking A-level tutoring in classics from a terminally ill woman obsessed with the Rapture. When Joanna and the baby go missing, Reggie knows from her bitter experience that something must be terribly wrong, but she can’t get anyone else to worry. And that’s worrying, too.
Two years after the end of One Good Turn, Jackson Brodie is married again, unexpectedly and happily. He’s in the north on personal business, and when it’s concluded, he tries to return to his home in London — something that proves to be nearly impossible. Back in Edinburgh, DCI Louise Monroe, who nearly had a romantic connection with Brodie in One Good Turn, is also rather surprisingly married. It’s Monroe who alerts Joanna that her family’s killer is out of jail, and to her that Reggie comes when Joanna disappears. But this plot (disturbing as it is) is interrupted by a train crash — and, as it turns out, Jackson Brodie really, really got on the wrong train this time.
As I mentioned in my last review, Kate Atkinson is fond of using coincidence in her books; One Good Turn was really all about the results of coincidence. This is one difference between her books and run-of-the-mill detective stories. In, say, a P.D. James or Elizabeth George novel, coincidence would not be a good enough explanation for a major plot event. Here, however, it not only seems satisfying, it seems downright interesting — an exploration of themes like destiny and fate, and what we do to combat those forces in our lives. Another difference is the writing. Atkinson’s writing is prickly, funny, lively, and (dare I say) literary. It’s engaging and intelligent, it never puts itself first, and it’s not afraid to go for the feel-bad ending (“I have no idea how to love another human being,” says Louise, “unless it’s by tearing them to pieces and eating them.”)
When Will There Be Good News? is about parents and children. It’s about fierce love and interconnectedness, the depths of which we have no way to guess or escape. It’s about creating families when the families we’re born with die or disappear or let us down. It’s about the cracks in the heart through which love, and wretchedness, and hope appear. I don’t know whether this sounds much like a crime novel, but it is an excellent novel, and one I strongly recommend you read.