Jackson Brodie, a private detective, is investigating three old cases, which soon begin to converge and overlap. Three-year-old Olivia Land disappeared without a trace thirty-five years ago while sleeping outside with one of her sisters, two of whom have hired Jackson to find out what happened. Theo Wyre has hired him to investigate the death of his daughter Laura Wyre, who was killed by a maniac ten years before while working in her father's office. Shirley Morrison, Jackson's third client, is trying to locate her sister and her niece. Her sister Michelle, living with her husband and young daughter on an isolated farm, has vanished from Shirley's life, and after twenty-five years, Shirley wants to find her.
Atkinson's suspenseful and dramatic cases pique the reader's interest in the characters and their lives, especially the female characters. All have faced traumatic events and suffered through less than ideal childhoods, which unfold inexorably as the cases become more complex. Not a linear narrative, the novel focuses on different characters in successive chapters, moving back and forth in time to provide background and to set up the overlaps which eventually occur. The characters are sometimes bizarre, baffling, and even unsympathetic, but they are always memorable for their behavior and their justifications for it.
Filled with ironies and noir humor, the novel also reveals Atkinson's astute observation of social interactions, as she skewers some aspects of her characters' lives while also creating sympathy for them. While the first two case histories-that of the missing Olivia and the murdered Laura-are genuinely sad and regarded overall as tragedies, the story of Michelle Fletcher, and peripherally, her sister Shirley, is much darker. Neither Michelle nor Shirley elicits much empathy after the opening chapter, but the occasional interjection of their story line stirs up the action, changes the pace, and keeps the novel from being overly melodramatic. Atkinson's eventual revelations about Michelle's life provide Atkinson with some of her best opportunities for social satire and wit.
Readers will delight in Atkinson's characterizations, and the ironies are priceless--the room where Laura was killed has, ten years later, become a day spa named "Bliss," and the place where two other deaths take place becomes an elaborate garden. Atkinson saves the biggest noir twists for last. Though the cases are, in fact, all "solved" by Jackson, they are not really solved. At least five important "loose ends" regarding the perpetrators of these murders and disappearances remain, showing that even murder cases are not as "cut and dried" as one might expect. (4.5 stars) Mary Whipple