Big Sky


By Kate Atkinson

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Iconoclastic detective Jackson Brodie returns in a triumphant new novel about secrets, sex, and lies.

Jackson Brodie has relocated to a quiet seaside village, in the occasional company of his recalcitrant teenage son and an aging Labrador, both at the discretion of his ex-partner Julia. It’s picturesque, but there’s something darker lurking behind the scenes.

Jackson’s current job, gathering proof of an unfaithful husband for his suspicious wife, is fairly standard-issue, but a chance encounter with a desperate man on a crumbling cliff leads him into a sinister network — and back across the path of his old friend Reggie. Old secrets and new lies intersect in this breathtaking novel by one of the most dazzling and surprising writers at work today.

“Thank goodness the long Jackson Brodie hiatus is over.” –Janet Maslin, New York Times


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“So what now?” he asked.

“A quick getaway,” she said, shucking off her fancy shoes into the passenger footwell. “They were killing me,” she said and gave him a rueful smile because they’d cost a fortune. He knew—he’d paid for them. She had already removed her bridal veil and tossed it onto the back seat, along with her bouquet, and now she began to struggle with the thicket of grips in her hair. The delicate silk of her wedding dress was already crushed, like moth wings. She glanced at him and said, “As you like to say—time to get the hell out of Dodge.”

“Okay, then. Let’s hit the highway,” he said and started the engine.

He noticed that she was cupping the bowl of her belly where she was incubating an as yet invisible baby. Another branch to add to the family tree. A twig. A bud. The past counted for nothing, he realized. Only the present had value.

“Wheels up, then,” he said and put his foot down on the gas.

On the way, they made a detour up to Rosedale Chimney Bank to stretch their legs and look at the sunset that was flooding the vast sky with a glorious palette of reds and yellows, orange and even violet. It demanded poetry, a thought he voiced out loud, and she said, “No, I don’t think so. It’s enough in itself.” The getting of wisdom, he thought.

There was another car parked up there, an older couple, admiring the view. “Magnificent, isn’t it?” the man said. The woman smiled at them and congratulated the “happy couple” on their wedding and Jackson said, “It’s not what it looks like.”

One Week Earlier

Anderson Price Associates

Katja scrutinized Nadja’s makeup. Nadja posed for her as if she were taking a selfie, cheeks sucked in like a corpse, mouth pouted extravagantly.

“Yeah. Good,” Katja pronounced finally. She was the younger of the two sisters but was by far the bossier. They could be twins, people always said. There were two years and one and a half inches between them. Katja was the smaller and the prettier of the two, although they were both petite and shared the same shade of (not entirely natural) blond hair, as well as their mother’s eyes—green irises encircled by gray.

“Hold still,” Nadja said and brushed an eyelash off Katja’s cheek. Nadja had a degree in Hospitality Management and worked at the Radisson Blu, where she wore a pencil-skirted suit and two-inch heels and tidied her hair away in a tight bun while she dealt with complaining guests. People complained all the time. When she got home to her shoe-box apartment she shook her hair free and put on jeans and a big sweatshirt and walked around barefoot and no one complained because she lived on her own, which was the way she liked it.

Katja had a job in housekeeping in the same hotel. Her English wasn’t as good as her older sister’s. She didn’t have any qualifications beyond school and even those were mediocre because she had spent her childhood and most of her teenage years ice-skating competitively, but in the end she just wasn’t good enough. It was a cruel, vicious world and she missed it every day. The ice rink had made her tough and she still had a skater’s figure, lithe and strong. It drove men a little crazy. For Nadja it had been dancing—ballet—but she had given it up when their mother couldn’t afford to pay for lessons for both of them. She had sacrificed her talent easily, or so it seemed to Katja.

Katja was twenty-one, living at home, and couldn’t wait to fly the stifling nest, even though she knew that a job in London would almost certainly be the same as the one she had here—making beds and cleaning toilets and pulling strangers’ soapy hair out of plugholes. But once she was there things would change, she knew they would.

The man was called Mr. Price. Mark Price. He was a partner in a recruitment agency called Anderson Price Associates—APA—and had already interviewed Nadja over Skype. Nadja reported to Katja that he was attractive—tanned, a full head of attractively graying hair (“like George Clooney”), a gold signet ring, and a heavy Rolex on his wrist (“like Roger Federer”). “He’d better look out, I might marry him,” Katja said to her sister and they both laughed.

Nadja had emailed scans of her qualifications and references to Mark Price and now they were waiting in Nadja’s apartment for him to Skype from London again to “confirm all the details” and “have a quick chat” with Katja. Nadja had asked him if he could find work for her sister too and he said, “Why not?” There was plenty of work in British hotels. “The problem is no one wants to work hard here,” Mark Price said.

“I want to work hard there,” Nadja said.

They weren’t stupid, they knew about trafficking, about people who tricked girls into thinking they were going to good jobs, proper jobs, who then ended up drugged, trapped in some filthy hole of a room having sex with one man after another, unable to get home again because their passports had been confiscated and they had to “earn” them back. APA wasn’t like that. They had a professional website, all aboveboard. They recruited all over the world for hotels, nursing homes, restaurants, cleaning companies, they even had an office in Brussels, as well as one in Luxembourg. They were “affiliated” and recognized and had all kinds of testimonials from people.

From what you could see of it on Skype, their office in London looked very smart. It was busy—you could hear the constant murmur of staff in the background, talking to each other, tapping keyboards, answering the ringing phones. And Mark Price himself was serious and businesslike. He talked about “human resources” and “support” and “employer responsibility.” He could help to arrange accommodation, visas, English tuition, ongoing training.

He already had something in mind for Nadja, “one of the very top hotels,” but she could decide when she arrived. There were plenty of opportunities “for a bright girl” like her. “And my sister,” she had reminded him.

“And your sister, yes, of course,” he’d laughed.

He would even pay their airfares. Most agencies expected you to pay them money up front for finding you a job. He would send an e-ticket, he said, they would fly to Newcastle. Katja had looked it up on the map. It was miles from London. “Three hours on the train,” Mark Price said, it was “easy.” And cheaper for him this way—he was paying for their tickets, after all. A representative of Anderson Price Associates would meet them at the airport and take them to an Airbnb in Newcastle for the night as the Gdansk flight came in late in the day. Next morning someone would escort them to the station and put them on a train. Someone else would pick them up at King’s Cross and drive them to a hotel for a few nights until they got settled. “It’s a well-oiled machine,” he said.

Nadja could probably have gotten a transfer to another Radisson but she was ambitious and wanted to work in a luxury hotel, somewhere everyone had heard of—the Dorchester, the Lanesborough, the Mandarin Oriental. “Oh, yes,” Mark Price had said, “we have contracts with all those places.” Katja wasn’t bothered, she just wanted to be in London. Nadja was the more serious of the two, Katja the carefree one. Like the song said, girls just wanted to have fun.

And so now they were sitting in front of Nadja’s open laptop waiting for Mark Price to call.

Mark Price was on time, to the second. “Okay,” Nadja said to Katja. “Here we go. Ready?”

The tiny delay in transmission seemed to be making it harder for her to translate what he was saying. Her English wasn’t as proficient as her sister had claimed. She laughed a lot to compensate, tossing her hair and looming nearer the screen as if she could persuade him by filling it with her face. She was pretty, though. They were both pretty, but this one was prettier.

“Okay, Katja,” he said. “Time’s getting on.” He tapped his watch to illustrate because he could see the blankness behind her smile. “Is your sister still there?” Nadja’s face appeared on the screen, squashed against Katja’s, and they both grinned at him. They looked as if they were in a Photo-Me booth.

“Nadja,” he said, “I’ll have my secretary email you the tickets first thing in the morning, okay? And I’ll see you both soon. Looking forward to meeting you. Have a good evening.”

He turned the screen off and the girls disappeared. He stood up and stretched. Behind him on the wall was the smart APA logo for Anderson Price Associates. He had a desk and a chair. There was a print of something modern but classy on the wall. Part of it was in view in the camera on the laptop—he had checked carefully. On the other side you could see an orchid. The orchid looked real, but it was a fake. The office was a fake. Anderson Price Associates was a fake, Mark Price was a fake. Only his Rolex was real.

He wasn’t in an office in London, he was in a mobile home in a field on the East Coast. His “other office,” as he thought of it. It was only half a mile inland and sometimes the screaming gulls threatened to spoil the illusion that he was in London.

He turned off the recording of Office Ambience Sounds, switched off the lights, locked up the mobile home, and climbed into his Land Rover Discovery. Time to go home. He could almost taste the Talisker that his wife would have waiting for him.

The Battle of the River Plate

And there’s the Ark Royal, keeping a good distance from the enemy…

There were a couple of quiet explosions—pop-pop-pop. The noise of tinny gunfire competing unsuccessfully with the gulls wheeling and screeching overhead.

Oh, and the Achilles has taken a hit, but luckily she has been able to contact the Ark Royal, who is racing to her aid…

“Racing” wasn’t quite the word that Jackson would have used for the rather labored progress the Ark Royal was making across the boating lake in the park.

And here come the RAF bombers! Excellent shooting, boys! Let’s hear it for the RAF and the escorts…

A rather weak cheer went up from the audience as two very small wooden planes jerked across the boating lake on zip wires.

“Jesus,” Nathan muttered. “This is pathetic.”

“Don’t swear,” Jackson said automatically. It was pathetic in some ways (the smallest manned navy in the world!), but that was the charm of it, surely? The boats were replicas, the longest twenty foot at most, the others considerably less. There were park employees concealed inside the boats, steering them. The audience was sitting on wooden benches on raked concrete steps. For an hour beforehand an old-fashioned kind of man had played an old-fashioned kind of music on an organ in a bandstand and now the same old-fashioned man was commentating on the battle. In an old-fashioned kind of way. (“Is this ever going to end?” Nathan asked.)

Jackson had come here as a kid once himself, not with his own family (when he had a family)—they never did anything together, never went anywhere, not even a day trip. That was the working class for you, too busy working to have time for pleasure, and too poor to pay for it if they managed to find the time. (“Didn’t you hear, Jackson?” Julia said. “The class war’s over. Everyone lost.”) He couldn’t remember the circumstances—perhaps he had come here on a Scouts outing, or with the Boys’ Brigade, or even the Salvation Army—the young Jackson had clung to any organization going in the hope of getting something for free. He didn’t let the fact that he was brought up as a Catholic interfere with his beliefs. He had even signed the pledge at the age of ten, promising the local Salvation Army Temperance Society his lifelong sobriety in exchange for a lemonade and a plate of cakes. (“And how did that work out for you?” Julia asked.) It was a relief when he eventually discovered the real Army, where everything was free. At a price.

“The Battle of the River Plate,” Jackson told Nathan, “was the first naval battle of the Second World War.” One of his jobs as a father was to educate, especially on his specialist subjects—cars, wars, women. (“Jackson, you know nothing about women,” Julia said. “Exactly,” Jackson said.) Nathan met any information conveyed to him by either rolling his eyes or appearing to be deaf. Jackson hoped that, somehow or other, his son was unconsciously absorbing the continual bombardment of advice and warnings that his behavior necessitated—“Don’t walk so close to the edge of the cliff. Use your knife and fork, not your fingers. Give up your seat on the bus.” Although when did Nathan ever go anywhere on a bus? He was ferried around like a lord. Jackson’s son was thirteen and his ego was big enough to swallow planets whole.

“What do they mean—‘manned’?” Nathan said.

“There are people inside the boats, steering them.”

“There aren’t,” he scoffed. “That’s stupid.”

“There are. You’ll see.”

Here comes Exeter as well. And the enemy submarine is in trouble now…

“You wait,” Jackson said. “One day you’ll have kids of your own and you’ll find that you make them do all the things that you currently despise—museums, stately homes, walks in the countryside—and they in turn will hate you for it. That, my son, is how cosmic justice works.”

“I won’t be doing this,” Nathan said.

“And that sound you can hear will be me laughing.”

“No, it won’t. You’ll be dead by then.”

“Thanks. Thanks, Nathan.” Jackson sighed. Had he been so callous at his son’s age? And he hardly needed reminding of his mortality, he saw it in his own boy growing older every day.

Looking on the bright side, Nathan was talking in more or less whole sentences this afternoon, rather than the usual simian grunts. He was slumped on the bench, his long legs sprawled out, his arms folded in what could only be described as a sarcastic manner. His feet (designer running shoes, of course) were enormous—it wouldn’t be long before he was taller than Jackson. When Jackson was his son’s age he had two sets of clothes and one of those was his school uniform. Apart from his gym plimsolls (“Your what?” Nathan puzzled), he had possessed just the one pair of shoes and would have been baffled by the concept “designer” or “logo.”

By the time Jackson was thirteen his mother was already dead of cancer, his sister had been murdered, and his brother had killed himself, helpfully leaving his body—hanging from the light fixture—for Jackson to find when he came home from school. Jackson never got the chance to be selfish, to sprawl and make demands and fold his arms sarcastically. And anyway, if he had, his father would have given him a good skelping. Not that Jackson wished suffering on his son—God forbid—but a little less narcissism wouldn’t go amiss.

Julia, Nathan’s mother, could go toe to toe with Jackson in the grief stakes—one sister murdered, one sister who killed herself, one who died of cancer. (“Oh, and don’t forget Daddy’s sexual abuse,” she reminded him. “Trumps to me, I think.”) And now all the wretchedness of their shared pasts had been distilled into this one child. What if somehow, despite his untroubled appearance, it had lodged in Nathan’s DNA and infected his blood, and even now tragedy and grief were growing and multiplying in his bones like a cancer? (“Have you even tried being an optimist?” Julia said. “Once,” Jackson said. “It didn’t suit me.”)

“I thought you said you were going to get me an ice cream.”

“I think what you meant to say was, ‘Dad, can I have that ice cream you promised and seem to have temporarily forgotten about? Please?’”

“Yeah, whatever.” After an impressively long pause he added, reluctantly, “Please.” (“I serve at the pleasure of the President,” an unruffled Julia said when their offspring demanded something.)

“What do you want?”

“Magnum. Double peanut butter.”

“I think you might be setting your sights quite high there.”

“Whatever. A Cornetto.”

“Still high.”

Nathan came trailing clouds of instructions where food was concerned. Julia was surprisingly neurotic about snacks. “Try and control what he eats,” she said. “He can have a small chocolate bar but no sweets, definitely no Haribo. He’s like a gremlin after midnight if he gets too much sugar. And if you can get a piece of fruit into him then you’re a better woman than me.” Another year or two and Julia would be worrying about cigarettes and alcohol and drugs. She should enjoy the sugar years, Jackson thought.

“While I’m getting your ice cream,” Jackson said to Nathan, “make sure you keep an eye on our friend Gary there in the front row, will you?” Nathan showed no sign of having heard him so Jackson waited a beat and then said, “What did I just say?”

“You said, ‘While I’m gone make sure you keep an eye on our friend Gary there in the front row, will you?’”

“Right. Good,” Jackson said, slightly chastened, not that he was going to show it. “Here,” he said, handing over his iPhone, “take a photograph if he does anything interesting.”

When Jackson got up, the dog followed him, laboring up the steps behind him to the café. Julia’s dog, Dido, a yellow Labrador, overweight and aging. Years ago, when Jackson was first introduced to Dido by Julia (“Jackson, this is Dido—Dido, this is Jackson”), he thought the dog must have been called after the singer, but it turned out she was the namesake of the Queen of Carthage. That was Julia in a nutshell.

Dido—the dog, not the Queen of Carthage—also came with a long list of instructions. You would think Jackson had never looked after a child or a dog before. (“But it wasn’t my child or my dog,” Julia pointed out. “I believe that should be our child,” Jackson said.)

Nathan had been three years old before Jackson was able to claim any ownership of him. Julia, for reasons best known to herself, had denied that Jackson was Nathan’s father, so he had already missed the best years before she admitted to his paternity. (“I wanted him to myself,” she said.) Now that the worst years had arrived, however, it seemed that she was more than keen to share him.

Julia was going to be “ferociously” busy for nearly the entire school holiday, so Jackson had brought Nathan to stay with him in the cottage he was currently renting, on the East Coast of Yorkshire, a couple of miles north of Whitby. With good Wi-Fi Jackson could run his business—Brodie Investigations—from just about anywhere. The internet was evil but you had to love it.

Julia played a pathologist (“the pathologist,” she corrected) in the long-running police procedural Collier. Collier was described as “gritty northern drama,” although these days it was tired hokum thought up by cynical metropolitan types off their heads on coke, or worse, most of the time.

Julia had been given her own storyline for once. “It’s a big arc,” she told Jackson. He thought she said “ark” and it took him a while to sort this mystery out in his head. Now, still, whenever she talked about “my arc” he had a vision of her leading an increasingly bizarre parade of puzzled animals, two by two, up a gangplank. She wouldn’t be the worst person to be with during the Flood. Beneath her scatty, actressy demeanor she was resilient and resourceful, not to mention good with animals.

Her contract was up for renewal and they were drip-feeding the script to her, so, she said, she was pretty certain that she was heading for a grisly exit at the end of her “arc.” (“Aren’t we all?” Jackson said.) Julia was sanguine, it had been a good run, she said. Her agent was keeping an eye on a Restoration comedy that was coming up at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. (“Proper acting,” Julia said. “And if that fails there’s always Strictly. I’ve been offered it twice already. They’re obviously scraping the bottom of the barrel.”) She had a lovely throaty laugh, especially when being self-deprecating. Or pretending to be. It had a certain charm.

As suspected, no Magnums, no Cornettos, they only had Bassani’s,” Jackson said, returning with two cones held aloft like flambeaux. You might have thought that people would want their kids to stop eating Bassani’s ice cream after what had happened. Carmody’s amusements were still there as well, a rowdy, popular presence on the front. Ice cream and arcades—the perfect lures for kids. It must be getting on for a decade since the case was in the papers? (The older Jackson grew, the more slippery time became.) Antonio Bassani and Michael Carmody, local “worthies”—one of them was in jail and the other one had topped himself, but Jackson could never remember which was which. He wouldn’t be surprised if the one in jail wasn’t due to get out soon, if he hadn’t already. Bassani and Carmody liked kids. They liked kids too much. They liked handing kids around to other men who liked kids too much. Like gifts, like forfeits.

An eternally hungry Dido had waddled back hopefully on his heels and in lieu of ice cream Jackson gave her a bone-shaped dog treat. He supposed it didn’t make much difference to her what shape it was.

“I got a vanilla and a chocolate,” he said to Nathan. “Which do you want?” A rhetorical question. Who under voting age ever chose vanilla?

“Chocolate. Thanks.”

Thanks—a small triumph for good manners, Jackson thought. (“He’ll come good in the end,” Julia told him. “Being a teenager is so difficult, their hormones are in chaos, they’re exhausted a lot of the time. All that growing uses up a lot of energy.”) But what about all those teenagers in the past who had left school at fourteen (nearly the same age as Nathan!) and gone into factories and steelworks and down coal mines? (Jackson’s own father and his father before him, for example.) Or Jackson himself, in the Army at sixteen, a youth broken into pieces by authority and put back together again by it as a man. Were those teenagers, himself included, allowed the indulgence of chaotic hormones? No, they were not. They went to work alongside men and behaved themselves, they brought their pay packets home to their mothers (or fathers) at the end of the week and—(“Oh, do shut up, will you?” Julia said wearily. “That life’s gone and it isn’t coming back”).

“Where’s Gary?” Jackson asked, scanning the banks of seats.


“The Gary you’re supposed to be keeping an eye on.”

Without looking up from his phone, Nathan nodded in the direction of the dragon boats, where Gary and Kirsty were queuing for tickets.

And the battle is over and the Union Jack is being hoisted. Let’s have a cheer for the good old Union flag!

Jackson cheered along with the rest of the audience. He gave Nathan a friendly nudge and said, “Come on, cheer the good old Union flag.”

“Hurrah,” Nathan said laconically. Oh, irony, thy name is Nathan Land, Jackson thought. His son had his mother’s surname, it was a source of some contention between Julia and Jackson. To put it mildly. “Nathan Land” to Jackson’s ears sounded like the name of an eighteenth-century Jewish financier, the progenitor of a European banking dynasty. “Nat Brodie,” on the other hand, sounded like a robust adventurer, someone striking west, following the frontier in search of gold or cattle, loose-moraled women following in his wake. (“When did you get so fanciful?” Julia asked. Probably when I met you, Jackson thought.)

“Can we go now?” Nathan said, yawning excessively and unselfconsciously.

“In a minute, when I’ve finished this,” Jackson said, indicating his ice cream. Nothing, in Jackson’s opinion, made a grown man look more of a twit than walking around licking an ice-cream cone.

The combatants of the Battle of the River Plate began their lap of honor. The men inside had removed the top part of the boats—like conning towers—and were waving at the crowd.

“See?” Jackson said to Nathan. “Told you so.”

Nathan rolled his eyes. “So you did. Now can we go?”

“Yeah, well, let’s just check on our Gary.”

Nathan moaned as if he was about to be waterboarded.

“Suck it up,” Jackson said cheerfully.

Now that the smallest manned navy in the world was sailing off to its moorings, the park’s dragon boats were coming back out—paddleboats in bright primary colors with long necks and big dragon heads, like cartoon versions of Viking longboats. Gary and Kirsty had already mounted their own fiery steed, Gary pedaling heroically out into the middle of the boating lake. Jackson took a couple of photos. When he checked his phone he was pleasantly surprised to find that Nathan had taken a burst—the modern equivalent of the flicker books of his own childhood—while Jackson was off buying the ice creams. Gary and Kirsty kissing, puckered up like a pair of puffer fish. “Good lad,” Jackson said to Nathan.

Now can we go?”

“Yes, we can.”



On Sale
Jun 25, 2019
Page Count
400 pages

Kate Atkinson Headshot

Kate Atkinson

About the Author

Kate Atkinson was born in York and now lives in Edinburgh.

She won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year prize with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Her four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie became the BBC television series Case Histories, starring Jason Isaacs. Her last novel, Life After Life, was the winner of the Costa Novel Award and the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Prize, and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize. It was also voted Book of the Year for the independent booksellers associations on both sides of the Atlantic. Her new novel, A God in Ruins, is a companion to Life After Life, although the two novels can be read independently.

She was appointed MBE in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours List, and was voted Waterstones UK Author of the Year at the 2013 Specsavers National Book Awards.

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