Review of “Big Sky” by Kate Atkinson

This very dark Fargo-like comedic fifth entry in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie detective series is reminiscent at times of the classic Marx Brothers movie “A Night at the Opera.”

Brodie, ex-military police and ex-Cambridge Constabulary, is currently a private investigator working out of North Yorkshire. The majority of work for which he is hired consists of either following spouses suspected of cheating, or trying to trap innocent (so-far) fiancés and spouses to cheat, as a “test.” This summer he has the occasional assistance of his son Nathan, who stays with him when his mother Julia (and Brodie’s former girlfriend) is busy. Much of Jackson’s interactions with and observations of Nathan, aged 13, are quite humorous, and ring quite true to anyone familiar with teenagers.

In other chapters we follow a second family, Tommy Holyrod, his wife Chrystal, and their children Candy (3) and Harry (16), the latter being Tommy’s son from his first marriage. But Tommy is constantly busy with his company Holyrod Haulage, and Chrystal provides most of the parenting and companionship for both kids.

Yet another plot thread involves DC Reggie Chase and DC Ronnie Dibicki, who have been requested to conduct interviews in a cold case that just warmed up. The ten-year-old investigation – called “Operation Villette” – relates to two convicted sex traffickers, Bassani and Carmody.

There had been all kinds of accusations involving the two men: about “parties” they sponsored, pornography purveyed, and trips abroad for assignations with underage children. Most of it hadn’t been proved, although rumors persisted of a black book with details, and even of a third man in the operation who had never been named.

As one of the characters who surreptitiously carries on the business mused:

“[There were] limitless needs for sex in pop-up brothels, saunas and places that were even less legitimate, less salubrious. (You wouldn’t think that was possible, but it was.) Trade was good.”

And that ongoing business and those maintaining it form an additional plot strand. But of course the many subplots are connected in ways we don’t discern at first. The story is all about coincidences and interconnections among the characters. As Jackson Brodie always said: “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.”

The connections form a malevolent network, and indeed, a deadly one. As secrets come out, bodies begin to pile up, and time – for some of the characters – is running out quickly.

Discussion: If you have seen “A Night at the Opera” you will be familiar with the famous stateroom scene, which has been parodied numerous times in popular culture, by performers ranging from Cyndi Lauper to Seinfeld. Atkinson uses it several times in this book; in this case so darkly funny and yet so deadly serious.

From the “stateroom scene” in “A Night at the Opera”

The book even ends operatically, with a scene from a famous opera, suggesting rather parodically that the story is not over “until the fat lady sings.”

Evaluation: It has been a long time between Jackson Brodie books for Atkinson, and although I read the previous entries in the series, I pretty much didn’t remember a thing. It didn’t hurt my enjoyment of this book, though, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it even as a standalone to anyone who enjoys noir humor, clever dialogue, and/or well-constructed crime stories generally.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2019


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4 Responses to Review of “Big Sky” by Kate Atkinson

  1. Kay says:

    I haven’t read the other books in the series, but have read a couple of the author’s earlier books. Think I’ll try it anyway – perhaps on audio.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    This sounds very smart. I wonder if I would “get” it.

  3. Beth F says:

    I won’t remember anything from the earlier books either! But this one is begging to be read. Love that reminder of Night at the Opera!

  4. stacybuckeye says:

    I keep meaning to give this series a try.

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