Jackson Brodie returns

Nine years on, the moody detective picks up right where he left off in ‘Big Sky’

When last we saw Jackson Brodie, in 2011’s Started Early, Took My Dog, the introspective private investigator at the center of Kate Atkinson’s literary mystery series was wandering around Yorkshire, trying to track down an adopted woman’s biological family while coping with a rescued dog and his own personal dramas involving at least two ex-wives and a vanished fortune. Along the way, he managed to more-or-less solve a decades-old crime and rescue another stray — this time a toddler. 

He had a lot going on, is what I’m saying. 

When we meet him again in Big Sky (Little, Brown, 2019), nine years on (and after a string of World War II books from author Atkinson set), Brodie is still wandering around Yorkshire, sometimes in the company of his now-teenage son (by second ex-wife, Julia) and an aging Labrador retriever (also courtesy of Julia, who may not want to be married to Jackson anymore but trusts him implicitly with the things she loves most in the world). Brodie’s current job is tailing a local businessman to find out if he’s cheating on his wife. It’s dull work, but leave it to Brodie to inadvertantly stumble into a much larger, more sinister case simply by virtue of being in the wrong place at the right time. It isn’t long before he finds himself in the midst of marital secrets, cold cases, and human trafficking on a brisk, business-like scale.

I would certainly classify the Jackson Brodie series in the mystery genre, but Atkinson’s writing does not lend itself to the terse, straightforward “just the facts, ma’am” narrative that most people think of when they think of detective stories. She operates on a near stream-of-conscious level that has lots of space for digressions, asides, and parenthetical additions. Indeed, the first chapter of Big Sky is a scene between Jackson and his son, but the parenthetical conversations, both remembered and imagined, with Julia make her as present a character as if she wasn’t miles away filming a television series at the time. This is not a story to knock off while waiting for your car’s oil change in a noisy mechanic’s waiting room, or in 15-minute bursts of reading time at the end of the day. Atkinson’s demands my full attention when I read her work, but she rewards me with stories and characters that spring to life in my mind.

It had been so long since I read Started Early, Took My Dog that I worried I wouldn’t remember enough to be able to fall back into Jackson Brodie’s world. Those fears were unfounded — I mean, I really didn’t remember much in the way of details but it turned out not to matter in the end. Other than Julia, the only recurring character who makes a significant re-appearance here is Reggie Chase, whom we first met in When Will There Be Good News (2008). Then, she was a Scottish teenager with a tough home life; now, she is a police officer investigating the cold case that brings her back into Jackson’s orbit.

I was disappointed back in 2011 when Atkinson announced that she was done writing about Jackson Brodie, and I rejoiced when she said he was returning this year. The books she wrote in the meantime were critically acclaimed and I thoroughly enjoyed them, which made the return of Jackson Brodie seem like more of a celebration than a grasping at previous success. I don’t know if we’ll meet up with Jackson further down the road, but I’m happy to trust to Atkinson’s instincts about what she needs to write.

Ellery Queen takes a trip

The sleuth leaves the city behind to tackle a small-town family’s misery in ‘calamity town’

My mom had the Wrightsville Murders omnibus pictured at left on our bookshelves when I was growing up. It was a big heavy hardcover book containing three full-length Ellery Queen novels — Calamity Town, Crazy Like a Fox, and Ten Days’ Wonder — that I devoured starting in about sixth grade (40-some years ago). And I knew I had re-read it more than once, but I don’t think I fully grasped how often I must have read and re-read it until I started my most recent read of the first book in the omnibus, Calamity Town.

On every page — nearly in every paragraph — there was a phrase or sentence or scrap of dialogue that triggered the strongest sense of dejà vu. It wasn’t so much that I remember the outlines of the story or whodunit (I actually didn’t) but that I remembered actual words and phrases! I’ve never had that happen before and it was a pleasingly disconcerting sensation.

Fortunately the vertigo wore off after Part I (which makes me wonder if I read and re-read just the first section over and over? I wish I could go back in time to find out, but then again that would mean living through junior high and high school again and no thank you) and I could just enjoy the book for what it is, which is a splendidly plotted mystery full of appealing characters put into realistic situations and left to find their way out.

A brief plot overview: It’s 1940, and famous writer Ellery Queen has traveled to Wrightsville, a small town in upstate New York, in search of “color” for his next mystery novel. While there, he is befriended by the Wright family, descendants of the town’s founder. That leaves him in the perfect place to observe as one misadventure after another befalls the family, culminating in the requisite murder.

Perhaps because they take Ellery out of his usual New York City locale, the Wrightsville novels have always had an extra appeal for me. Whereas the “regular” Queen mysteries set in NYC seem to rely on intricately formed plots with clues and red herrings scattered about, in Wrightsville the characters come to life fully formed and breathing. Incredibly for a novel written in the 1940s, there is virtually no offensive racial stereotyping or cheap laughs gained at the expense of the “hicks” that populate Wrightsville. Ellery does not condescend to his hosts, not even the Town Soak who is prone to declaiming Shakespeare from his drunken perch at the base of the founder’s statue in the town square. It feels so much like a real town that I am half convinced I’ve been there before.

I guess the best thing I can say about this novel is that now I remember why I read and re-read it over and over all those years ago. It’s a magnificent piece of scene-setting and characterization, with a mystery that more than lives up to its surrounding structure. I have a feeling I won’t wait another 30 years before reading this one again …

Illusions of safety and danger

Dennis Lehane dives deep in ‘Since We Fell’

Rachel Childs is a television journalist in Boston whose career is on a steep upward trajectory until she is sent to Haiti on assignment after the devastating 2010 earthquake. The horror she sees and experiences there leave her with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder that becomes apparent when she breaks down during a live broadcast.

Back in Boston, her news career in shambles, Rachel struggles with panic attacks that leave her afraid to even leave her apartment. Her relationship with a co-worker doesn’t survive, but when she meets an old acquaintance by chance, his patient understanding of her problems leads to romance and eventually marriage. With Brian’s help, Rachel starts to re-emerge from her self-imposed exile. Her tentative journey back to normalcy is jolted, however, when on one of her first solo trips downtown she discovers Brian in a place he shouldn’t be. The discovery prompts her to use her investigative reporting skills to get to the bottom of the mystery without tipping him off to her suspicions leads her deeper and deeper into a dangerous situation where no one is who they seem.

For my money, Dennis Lehane is one of the most underrated mystery/thriller writers in the business. Yes, several of his previous novels, Mystic River and Shutter Island among them, were turned into feature films, but the books themselves never generate much discussion among my friends who enjoy Harlan Coben, Linwood Barclay, and others. With Since We Fell (Ecco, 2017), Lehane has delivered another intricately plotted examination of people who are not what they seem being driven to extremes by circumstances they can’t control. I appreciated that Rachel, despite her emotional fragility through much of the first part of the novel, is far from a hapless victim waiting to be rescued. She manages to engineer her own rescue on her own terms, even as she accepts the consequences of what she has to do in the process.

Lehane builds the narrative tension slowly but surely (perhaps a little too slowly at first) to a white-knuckle finish that seems both unexpected and inevitable. Nothing about this book made me any less eager to read the next offering from a first-rate writer.

The Irish Book of Job

John Boyne puts his hero through some heavy trials in ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’

So many friends on LibraryThing have recommended John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Hogarth, 2017) to me, and one went so far as to send me a copy of the trade paperback (thanks, Amber!) It took me entirely too long to get around to it, but once I did I understood entirely the enthusiasm.

The focus of the story is on Cyril Avery (who is not, his adoptive parents are quick to tell anyone who asks, a real Avery). Cyril’s teenage single mother was literally thrown out of church and her home village in 1945 when the priest learned she was pregnant; she ends up in Dublin, where she sets up an unconventional household with two gay men. Once she gives Cyril up, she loses touch with Cyril for many years, although their lives have a way of crossing at intervals, with neither of them any the wiser about who the other is. This aspect of the narrative was amusing but strained credulity quite a bit for me.

The narrative follows Cyril and his adventures — or more accurately his misadventures — as he grows up and tries to find his place in a world that doesn’t value him. The story leaps forward in seven-year intervals into the 21st century. At times it seemed like a retelling of the Book of Job with an Irish brogue. Just about any calamity that can befall a young, introverted gay man and his acquaintances lands on poor Cyril and friends. But the conceit allows us to view momentous events in the history of Ireland and of gay rights worldwide through one sensitive young man’s eyes, so perhaps Boyne can be forgiven for ladling on the pathos so thickly.

In many ways, The Heart’s Invisible Furies reminded me very much of the best of John Irving’s work, in particular The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Both novelists have a knack for creating quirky characters and putting crisp, eloquent words in their mouths. I’ll certainly seek out other novels by Boyne to see if the comparison holds up or is merely coincidental to this work.

‘Yells for Ourselves’ gets up close and personal with the NY Mets

Sports stories — and especially baseball stories — are written at certain altitudes, as it were. Some are written from 30,000 feet, taking a wide overview of what’s happening across a broad span of time. Some cruise along at a lower altitude, focusing on a particular team or player but still encompassing a number of years, or vice versa. And still others, like Yells for Ourselves: A Story of New York City and the New York Mets at the Dawn of the Millennium (2019, Quill) do their best work at ground level, up close and personal with a particular team at a very specific point in time.

In the case of Matthew Callan’s historical recounting, the team is the New York Mets and the time is 1999 and 2000. Callan writes with the enthusiasm of a fan but the skill of a journalist. His primary source appears to be his personal observation of the seasons in question, and his only secondary sources are quotes from contemporary news accounts. As such, the book is somewhat lacking in the kind of historical grounding that I think Callan intended, that could only be achieved by revisiting the key figures in the story to get their perspective from today. He does do a good job of placing the team within the context of New York City’s history and its battle for the city’s affections with the New York Yankees, perhaps the most famous sports franchise in any sport. As Callan tells it, the Mets ascended in attention and affection when New York was going through tough times in the 1970s and 1980s, battling high crime and bad press. In those days, the Mets were symbolic of the scrappy blue-collar underdog identity to which the city’s residents related most strongly. As the city righted itself in the 1990s (albeit under somewhat questionable law enforcement policies) its identity tilted more toward Wall Street and the Yankees, with their illustrious history of world championships and timelessly “classic” look, once again leaving the Mets on the outside looking in.

Even more than those analogies between baseball and economics, however, Yells for Ourselves is primarily a nearly day-by-day accounting of two seasons of the New York Mets, with all the ups and downs that devout followers find so agonizing. The sheer detail might be overwhelming to any but the most avid Mets fans. More general baseball enthusiasts should find the reminders of familiar players and events a pleasant trip down memory lane, along with a glimpse behind the curtain of events they only viewed from afar. Casual fans and those who do not follow baseball at all may well find themselves turning instead to something a bit less meticulously detailed.

For all that Yells for Ourselves seems to be a labor of love by a lifelong Mets fan, the writing is professional and far from a slog. It is well written and edited, and does not suffer from a confusion of timeline or purpose. In that Callan has more than done his favorite team justice, even as he despairs at their foibles.

Viral video opens old wounds in ‘The Hidden Things’

With The Hidden Things (Gallery Books, 2019) Jamie Mason has crafted a solid suspense thriller that is firmly rooted in contemporary culture. It all begins when 14-year-old Carly fends off a would-be attacker who follows her home from school. Their encounter in the front hallway of her family’s home is captured by the surveillance cameras that her stepfather, John, had installed. Predictably in the 2010s, the video goes viral on social media after first being posted on the local police website. Soon Carly is fielding questions and attention from friends and strangers alike, who all know her as the plucky teen who defeated the bad guy.

Carly’s a bit overwhelmed by all the attention, but not so much that she doesn’t notice how oddly John is acting in the wake of the incident. And she isn’t immune to the household tension that erupts because neither Carly nor her mom realized John had installed surveillance cameras inside as well as outside the house.

Many cities away, the viral video comes to the attention of a group of people who are particularly interested, not in Carly and her heroics, but in what’s shown in the background: The corner of an old painting that was stolen from a museum and later thought to be lost forever when an underground sale went awry. How did it end up in Carly’s house? And to what lengths will people go to get it back?

The story is told from a variety of viewpoints, giving the reader insight into what all the main players are thinking and feeling. There’s Carly, of course, who is the heroine in more ways than one. But there’s also her stepfather, who finds himself trapped in a situation that could cause him to lose the comfortable home life he has finally found. And the other people who were involved in the caper-gone-wrong along with John are also given their turn in the spotlight: hapless loser Roy, ruthless bad guy Owen, and the enigmatic Marcelline, left for dead but very much alive. As they all converge on Carly’s home, no one’s sparing a thought for who might get caught in the crossfire. And it’s up to Carly to try to save herself, her family, and her “normal” teenage life.

Mason does a great job of juggling the rotating viewpoints without losing the reader’s attention. She managed to make me sympathize with each of them in turn, even when I knew the unspeakable things some of them had done. And she doesn’t try to wrap things up with a neat bow and unbelievable feats of strength from a young teenager. Carly is indeed her own savior (with a little help) but she is changed irrevocably by what she learns and what she is forced to do, and Mason doesn’t shy away from exploring the consequences of those actions. It kept me turning pages to the very end, and feeling satisfied when I closed the cover.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.