Sunday, September 20, 2009

Atkinson lacks suspenseful flair of Christie, Doyle

Somewhere between the ages of 12 and 14 I decided to read all of Agatha Christie’s mysteries featuring Hercule Poirot. I plowed through what was in the library and used the virtue of my being “such a good reader!” to persuade my parents to buy me the ones I couldn’t track down for free. I loved the funny little Belgian and the appearance of his various sidekicks. All of this is to say that I am not unfamiliar with British crime writing (during another summer I read every one of Sherlock Holmes’s adventures). Kate Atkinson is a writer of this variety. Her novel "When Will There Be Good News?" is the third she has written that includes former policeman Jackson Brodie and the only one I’ve read.
First off, it’s a quick read. The characters are amusing and Atkinson is capable of enticing the reader forward with the carrot of the next sensational event. The prologue is a gruesome murder that sets a particular tone for the rest of the book. The events that follow occur some thirty years later, but that first murder and other murders like it are never far from the surface.
Jackson Brodie is only one of the characters from whose perspective the novel unfolds. He is semi-retired and too young to be cantankerous but approaches something like it.
Reggie is sixteen years old, alone, but for her thief of a brother, in the wake of her mother’s accidental death. She works for Joanna, the only survivor of that first murder. Reggie cares for her toddler daughter and worships both mother and child.
Finally, there is Louise Monroe. She and Jackson have a history of working together and there are undertones if what might have been more. At the moment Louise’s life is filled with the burdens of a new, not particularly suitable marriage, (though the husband is jolly and adjusted, perhaps too perfect) and the protection of women who have been the victims of brutal crimes.
The lives of the three protagonists become tangled in various ways that rely heavily on coincidences manufactured by the author. Together they work to discover the solutions to the various, lengthy mysteries that present themselves.
All three carry on amusing inner monologues. They have quick tongues and each possesses a particular twist of humor. It is not difficult to glide along beside them as one thing or another is bemoaned or discovered. But despite the light tone of the characters, they are all somewhat grating. Much of consequence is taken for granted in this narrative and trivialities explicitly explained. The book is packed with dramatic events because the characters lack the complexity to carry the story forward on their own.
Atkinson’s novel is not particularly mysterious in the sense of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. There is not a carefully placed trail of clues, which only the brilliance of an uncommon mind can link together. That approach is not necessarily essential for a successful detective novel, but there should be some suspense as to the way the outcome unfolds. In "When Will There Be Good News?" any urgency to turn the pages was linked to an obvious cliffhanger as opposed to the titillating suspense of not yet having found the answer. I always knew the answer was coming with Atkinson, a great mystery makes you forget that the formula demands an answer.

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