Though he makes his living writing crime novels, Martin Canning is a shy, gentle man. But when he witnesses a road rage incident at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he steps in to save a stranger from being beaten to death. The story begins in the point of view of the beaten man, and he does something for hire that’s on the shady side of the law, though the reader knows not what. The book also ends in his POV in a neat frame for the narrative, with a twist that ties up his role and reveals his trade, but also opens up a whole new set of questions as to who was chasing whom from the beginning.
Martin’s one good turn takes him into a labyrinth of troubles. Other witnesses to the same incident become the other major players in the story. The plot weaves their stories together, using all of their points of view. The incident is like an impact point of a meteor crash and or the center of a starburst pattern, and it’s also like the outer doll in the Russian nesting dolls that are a repeating image throughout the book. Each of these witnesses is a fascinating character drawn with depth and humor, especially Gloria, the resourceful and disillusioned wife of a corrupt tycoon. Jackson Brodie is sort of a part-time protagonist; it’s not uniquely his story. And it’s not a conventional murder mystery. The nested dolls of time and memory are part of the unusual structure. Sometimes this flashback technique works and sometimes it doesn’t. As Jackson muses on his relationship’s past joys and present difficulties, it works. When he thinks at length about the swimming pool at his house in France while trying to haul a dead body out of the sea at risk to his life, it’s not only implausible but kills the scene with loss of continuity and tension. As Gloria’s memories are gradually revealed, it seems contrived, because she’s not discovering insights. Although she encounters many new externals, as far as her internals go, she’s known all along exactly what drives her. The challenge for a writer using so many points of view is to keep secrets from the reader without making the reader aware of the author withholding information that is known to the POV character. Martin’s recollection of his trip to Russia is parceled out bit by bit, as if it were a new story in the background, a narrative with installments embedded into his ongoing experiences. Is it even a flashback? Realistically, it seems that every time something reminds him of the worst part of that trip, he would think directly about the specific event, not build up to it in a reconstruction of the entire journey. His fantasy life, however, is a wonderful creation, a revelation of his character, his self-image, and his psychological evolution.
There are two murders, but the instigating event is not the murder, and the plot doesn’t turn on finding out whodunit. There are layers of motives and connections to puzzle out, but it’s pretty obvious, after a while, who the killer is. That’s not a weakness in the story, in my opinion (though there are others).
The role of Tatiana, the Russian woman is ambiguous, and figuring her out might take a full rereading. I’m left wondering if the author knew everything this character was up to behind the scenes and thought the reader would get it, or if she simply found it convenient to have a character who remains mysterious, her actions and knowledge and connections not fully revealed. This is the second time I’ve read a book by this author that made me think she wrapped up loose ends offstage because she either ran out of space in her projected word count, didn’t have a solid solution and wanted to hide it, or wanted to leave the reader trying to figure out a lot she didn’t put in the story.
The endings of all the personal-life subplots are given the right degree of partial closure. There are implications of what could happen for Martin, for Jackson, for Gloria, and others, though no certainties. Again, Atkinson delivers characters who carry the story, brilliant writing, natural humor, and a complex but vaguely unsatisfactory plot. Once again, five-star characters, setting, and language and three-star story-telling and plot=four stars.