When asked several years ago to name the question she gets most frequently from her fans, the English novelist Kate Atkinson replied without hesitation, “When is Jackson Brodie coming back?”
Were Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable still up and running, this question would surely be the definitive example of looking a gift horse in the mouth.
Atkinson has published 12 books of fiction, four of them featuring Brodie, her police officer turned private detective. At the time she fielded the question above, she had just published Life After Life, one of this century’s best novels (OK, going for broke here: any century at all).
Life After Life was the first of three books that looked at World War II—the run up, the duration, and the fallout—from various angles and experiences. The other two books, A God in Ruins and Transcription, were not as good as the first, but they were still absorbing reading. It’s just that Life After Life casts a very long shadow.
But all of them viscerally portrayed the physical and emotional effects of war. Just as Tolstoy wrote well about the Napoleonic wars he’d never seen, Atkinson has given us perhaps our best rendition of what it was like to live through the Blitz, even though she was born years after the war ended.
So, in the face of that accomplishment, it seems rather greedy to be yearning for the return of Jackson Brodie. Not that I don’t understand the impulse. Brodie is a wonderful character, a man of good intentions, unlucky in love, sometimes luckier in his professional life, but not always. And he’s the perfect antidote to the genre cliche of the detective who neatly sews up every case. Brodie is more like Jake Gittes in Chinatown: he stumbles on the truth while looking for something else and it nearly destroys him.
But now, at least, happiness has arrived for all those yearning Brodie fans (one of whom in print called him “dreamy,” which just shows what I don’t know, since that would be about the last word I’d associate with this long-suffering, often baffled man besieged by ex-wives, ex-girlfriends, offspring, and wayward, dissembling clients: “‘I don’t understand,’ Jackson said. “He didn’t know why he didn’t get that sentence tattooed on his forehead.”).
So yes, Jackson Brodie has returned in Atkinson’s latest, Big Sky.
And a small part of me almost wishes he hadn’t.
You will not catch me saying bad things about Atkinson. No one thinks more highly of this novelist than I do (like me she plainly has Aga envy—so she must be a genius). When I’m going through the mail and find a new Atkinson book, my first thought is always, oh good, now I have something to read tonight. Not a thought inspired by almost any other living writer.
But this time, she’s undertaken to write about not one but two gangs of sexual predators, one that directly preys on teen girls and boys and one engaged in sex trafficking. That was, I’m thinking, perhaps— unwise.
Put another way, it’s one more thing to blame on Jeffrey Epstein.
If the horror of the Epstein story were not everywhere in the news, I might not have had this thought. After all, crime writers—--and Atkinson, at least when writing about Brodie, is a crime writer, different though she may be—often inject their stories with subjects in the news. Sometimes it’s opportunistic, sometimes not.
I don’t think Atkinson is an opportunist. There’s nothing lurid about her story, and she certainly doesn’t include any details that might inadvertently excite an actual pedophile. But if you set her story alongside the actual details of Epstein that have surfaced in news accounts, her horrors pale by comparison. Which, I’m sure, is nothing she foresaw.
There are certain topics that for various reasons do not lend themselves to fiction. It is extremely hard, to cite the most obvious example, to write convincingly or persuasively about music. Some crucial thing always gets lost in the telling. The same with politics. Only a handful of novels come close to capturing a whiff of, say, Washington’s machinations, and in the era of Trump, none at all.
It is almost as hard, judging by the evidence, to write well about sex, or at least without unintentionally making readers laugh.
And it is apparently impossible to write convincingly about sex offenders. Because if Atkinson can’t do it, I’m not sure any author can. Nabokov would seem the obvious exception, but even his fire pales before the grisly likes of Epstein.
Reading about Epstein, you can’t help realizing that no fiction can capture this terrible story. The news does not have to explain its monsters. It merely has to put the crimes before the public. Fiction writers, on the other hand, have an obligation not to the facts but the truth. That’s a much more daunting chore. And they are hobbled at every turn by the censorious voice in their heads that says, you’re just making this up—no matter how detailed or specifically you write, there is no way you can convey the actual horror of the real crimes so ever present in the media. And if authors don’t tell themselves this, their readers will.
It is noteworthy that with one exception Atkinson does not try to go inside the minds of her villains, and the one whose mind she does explore is wracked with guilt. Perhaps she felt that the unrepentant characters were even more chilling when drawn as otherwise normal people. And indeed it is troubling to read about such people going about the routines of their lives as though they were what they seemed—businessmen, lawyers, travel agents—and not the evil men they in fact are.
But ultimately, the horrors in Big Sky pale beside the horrors that we confront anew with every new revelation about Epstein and his circle, and there is nothing Atkinson can do about that, no matter how great she is.