Novel: When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

The best writers, once they’ve mastered the rules, delight in ignoring them. This thought leaped to mind while easing into Kate Atkinson’s gripping seriocomic thriller When Will There Be Good News? (2008), the third book in her series featuring reluctant private investigator Jackson Brodie. With a casual, meandering style that would be aggravating in the wrong hands, When Will There Be Good News? weaves another engrossing tapestry, disregarding standard mystery-plot beats and intertwining its three heroes in a web of coincidences so unlikely that it might be infuriating, if Atkinson hadn’t made it so bloody fun.

The plot, while slow to ramp, coalesces around Dr. Joanna Hunter—initially met when, as a child, she fled the scene of the gruesome mass murder of her entire family. Since then, Joanna has managed to carry on with her life, even if she ended up marrying an entrepreneurial fuck-up. But she’s also something of a role model for her nanny, Reggie Chase, a resilient teenager who has her own bad-luck crosses to bear, including absentee parents and a reprobate of a brother. Reggie’s path is destined to cross with Atkinson’s heroes Jackson Brodie, a middle-aged ex-cop with a PI past, and DCI Louise Monroe, the jagged-edge detective Brodie met in One Good Turn. Brodie and Monroe, now both married to other partners, are very much still in each others’ minds in a star-crossed, never-was romance kind of way, but their reunion—which involves a suicide, a train derailment, a kidnapping, and various and sundry other compiled misfortunes—turns out to be anything but romantic.

Appropriately enough for a writer of mysteries, Atkinson gets away with murder in When Will There Be Good News? The plot takes well over a hundred pages to take shape, full of internal-monologue digressions as we roll around inside the psyches of Reggie, Brodie, and Monroe. Their ultimate coming together feels, even in the moment, wholly inorganic—an author maneuvering pieces on the board in transparent service to the desire to see their paths cross. Despite all this, it works! Well enough, anyway, that I didn’t care that the structural seams were showing. It’s just so easy to delight in Atkinson’s entertaining ramblings, and it’s not possible to watch her well-drawn heroes edge toward connection without wanting it to happen, however unlikely. All these detailed machinations revolve around a coherent, powerful thematic core: the tragic luck of the characters, which Atkinson couches in quirky, low-key humor to help the medicine go down. In the hands of a less skillful wordsmith, When Will There Be Good News? might have been a storytelling trainwreck, but as far as I’m concerned, Atkinson can throw away the rules whenever she likes.

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