As I said before, what makes Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series so great is that it really isn’t detective fiction.
Instead, Jackson Brodie — former police officer, former Private Investigator, former husband, former boyfriend, current not-much-of-anything — is often incidental to the larger story at work. At some point, on hearing that Brodie used to be a police officer and private investigator, a character will appeal to him to help solve some minor or major crime, and even if he is instrumental in the final dénouement, he only ever knows half the story.
While the first book in the series, Case Histories, is the most traditional in terms of the way it sets up its three or four respective mysteries, having each come to a clean and/or serendipitous conclusion, the next three offer something more unusual. Instead of having a group of short stories that all seem to converge, Atkinson begins at the point of convergence — a car crash, a shoplifting, an abduction, a train crash — and works outward, exploring the lives of the handful of people at the scene whose mysteries or stories have something or nothing to do with the initial event itself. Rather than being an objective observer, Brodie is often caught up in — rather than called upon to solve — the chaos itself.
While in most stories, particularly detective fiction, the detective himself should be the glue that holds the narrative together, Brodie is often the figure most removed from the main plot. Brodie — far from being our sober hero — is a complete mess of a human being. He leapfrogs from one bad relationship to the next, juggling his self-decreed duties as a father and ex-husband/boyfriend, and finds himself on a seemingly endless quest to save women from the dark, shadowy men of his imaginings.
An incident years earlier in which his older sister was raped, murdered and dumped in a ravine has made Brodie paranoid about the safety of all women, seeing them as helpless lambs in need of protection, despite the fact that he is often the most lost and vulnerable character of the bunch.
While Jackson is off fighting his demons and occasionally checking in with his clients, the rest of the narrators are often busy getting on with their own lives as well. What makes Atkinson’s series unique is that it’s believable. Most people are trying to get on with their lives, rather than staying obsessed with the mystery or incident at the start of the novel, even if they find themselves caught up in it near the end. As the person who recommended this series to me said, while the murders or the violence feel real — rather than the palatable entertainment of a traditional Miss Marple-esque “murder-mystery” — the tone of the book remains surprisingly optimistic. These people will get through this, because that’s what people do.
In other words, I cannot recommend these books enough.