This is the third of Atkinson's novels to feature detective Jackson Brodie, and we also get another appearance from Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe. Set mainly in Edinburgh, the plot centres on Dr Joanna Hunter, who at six survived the random and brutal killing of her mother, older sister and baby brother. Their killer has now served his thirty-year sentence, and is shortly to be released. Dr Hunter and her one-year-old baby son Gabriel disappear; at first this is not seen as suspicious, given the circumstances and her husband Neil's confirmation that she is staying with an aunt, but her babysitter Reggie (short for Regina) is convinced something more sinister has happened. Jackson is almost literally thrown into Reggie's life; he has, by mistake, boarded a train to Edinburgh, which crashes very close to a house in which Reggie is dog-sitting. Dr Hunter has taught Reggie first aid, and she - in her own estimation - saves Jackson's life at the scene of the crash. Enlisted in the search for Dr Hunter, Jackson encounters Louise again, and each is caused to re-evaluate the wisdom of a recent marriage. Surrounding the main plot are Neil Hunter's dodgy business activities, Reggie's brother Billy's descent into criminality; and lots and lots of literary references, quotations and wordplay.
Like the two previous books, the plot is emotionally rich and satisfying, with appropriate opportunities for redemption and punishment; even the perpetually martyred Jackson is allowed some chinks of light to brighten his personal darkness. However, I wondered whether Atkinson is now working to something of a formula with these books, which might render them a little cynical. One short paragraph stands out in particular. Joanna Hunter's father was a novelist of the angry young man generation. When Joanna goes missing, Louise begins to read his novels, and notes that Howard Mason never wrote about the murder of his wife and children, the survival of Joanna. That, Louise thinks, would have been a bestseller. Kate Atkinson, of course, has written that bestseller; the reader of the paragraph is holding it in her hands. No doubt this is just a little self-referential joke, but it works against the tone of the novel, which is generally redemptive and humane. The novel remains an enjoyable work, however, and taps into issues of deep and enduring interest, such as how to live in the face of atrocities, both for the victims and those who attempt to help them.