I started with Kate Atkinson’s third Jackson Brodie mystery novel, When Will There Be Good News?, then I went back to the beginning. But if I had started at the first one, would I have even finished the series?
Atkinson’s protagonist is private detective Jackson Brodie: a world-weary, cranky, cynical, tough-guy with “a deeply empathetic heart”, according to Atkinson’s website. Trouble finds him in the most unlikely but plausible of ways, and he attracts or is attracted to seemingly hopeless causes. He sometimes functions more as someone to bring all the rest of the novels’ other complex and interesting characters together than as the person really driving the action. He’s complex.
But he’s also really sexist and quite homophobic, especially in the first two books.
Each of the novels is also populated with incredibly interesting female characters, in a range of roles. In When Will There Be Good News?, a good chunk of the book is written from the perspective of 16-year-old Reggie, an unlikely heroine who saves Brodie from a train crash and convinces him to help her save her employer, who has been kidnapped. In book two, Case Histories, the ending is turned on its head by Gloria Hatter, the bored wife of a millionaire; and the millionaire’s ex-dominatrix, Tatiana. Finally, Started Early, Took My Dog gives us action from the perspective of an aging, dementia-ridden actress. It also introduces another ex-cop, Tracy Waterhouse, who struggles with her weight and her guilt over a past case, and ends up going to unbelievable lengths to rescue a little girl.
Finally, DCI Louise Monroe, Scottish single-mother and Brodie’s almost love-interest, appears in the second and third books and is crafted with at least as much complexity as Jackson. She’s incredibly devoted to her job, her son and her cat, but not so much to her (third book) husband and his annoying family. She makes me wish Atkinson had written a series about her instead of Brodie.
Unfortunately, the most intriguing women characters are often undermined by how Jackson sees them. In the first book, Case Histories, Jackson deals with a pair of sisters: Amelia and Julia.
On Amelia, Jackson observes her clothing and lack of attention to her appearance with disdain, and clearly scorns the thought of her being attracted to him:
“She was dressed in a way that suggested she’d stopped shopping for new clothes twenty years ago…The way she was dressed reminded him of old photographs of fishwives – clumpy shoes and woolen tights and a cord dirndl skirt…”
He also judges Julia at first (who later ends up his girlfriend), with a comment that shows both sexism and homophobia. Jackson observes, :
“She had one of those husky voices that sounded as if she was permanently coming down with a cold. Men seemed to find that sexy in a woman, which Jackson thought was odd because it made women sound less like women and more like men. Maybe it was a gay thing.”
More on the homophobia comes in One Good Turn, when Jackson disdainfully thinks of Julia’s director as “camper than a Scout jamboree. Jackson had nothing against gays, he just wished that sometimes they wouldn’t be quite so gay, especially when being introduced to him in what had turned out, unfortunately, to be a good old-fashioned macho Scottish pub.”
We also get some transphobia in the same book, as Jackson critiques the writer E.M. Watson as “just plain odd: either a badly put together woman or a man in drag. Transvestitism was a mystery to Jackson.” And in Started Early, Took My Dog, Jackson worries having a small dog will make women think he’s gay.
Jackson judging women on their femininity, appearance, and sex appeal is something we see almost every time he encounters a woman, alive or dead:
“She looked hot, already tightly buttoned into the airline’s ugly uniform. The uniform didn’t show off her figure and the courts she was wearing – like the Queen’s shoes -made her ankles look thick.” – on a woman he’s following whose husband suspects she’s having an affair, Case Histories
“If she’d been alive he would have automatically thought, what a great body, but in death this judgement was translated into a lovely figure – aesthetic and asexual as if he was contemplating the cold, marble limbs of a statue in the Louvre.” – on an unidentified corpse floating in the water, One Good Turn
“He conjured up a picture of Julia’s breasts, breasts he hadn’t seen enough of recently. Louise Monroe had much smaller breasts, you didn’t have to see her naked to know that. But she had them, there was no doubt about that.” – One Good Turn
“Eleanor had a plain face and limp hair that looked as if it resisted styling. And a fantastic pair of legs that seemed wasted on her. Just observing, not judging Jackson said silently in his defense against the monstrous regiment.” – Started Early, Took My Dog
He applies a similar level of analysis to his own daughter on more than one occasion:
“Jesus, she was dressed like a hooker. What did Josie [Jackson’s ex-wife] think, letting her go out looking like a paedophile’s dream. She even had lipstick on.” – Case Histories.
Comparing women to animals? Yeah, that happens too:
“Tatiana leaned closer to Jackson…She kissed him on the cheek and said, ‘Thank you.’ He felt strangely privileged, as if a wild animal had allowed him to stroke it.”
The single scene I have the biggest concern about is in One Good Turn, when Jackson remembers raping Julia, and remembers it as if it’s not really a big deal (trigger warning):
“Once, he had made love to her while she slept and she’d hardly even twitched when he came inside her, but he didn’t tell her about it afterwards because he wasn’t sure how she would react. He couldn’t imagine her being particularly put out (this was Julia, after all). She would probably just have said, ‘Without me? How could you?’ Technically it was rape, of course. He had arrested enough guys in his time for taking advantage of drunk or drugged girls. Plus, if he was honest, Julia was such a sound sleeper that there had been a touch of necrophilia about the whole thing.”
Jackson might be relatively nonchalant about raping his girlfriend, but he frequently ruminates (as do other characters) about the appalling levels of violence against women. Jackson is haunted by the rape and murder of his older sister Niamh, when she was a teenager, and the books remind us how individual attacks are part of a larger, gendered system. Book 4 takes a more specific focus on police downplaying, covering up, and even committing violence against sex workers.
The books certainly send an overall feminist message that violence against women is ubiquitous and wrong (except Jackson’s aforementioned rape, apparently). But there’s also a sense of inevitability that I found disheartening:
“No women was ever truly safe. It didn’t matter if you were as tough as Sigourney Weaver in Alien Resurrection or Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 because wherever you went there were men. Crazy men.” – Case Histories
“Of course, if you were a girl, if you were a woman, you didn’t need to go down a dark alley in order to be attacked. You could be sitting on a train, stepping off a bus, feeding a photocopier, and still be plucked from your life too soon by some crazy guy. Not even crazy, that was the thing, most of them weren’t crazy, they were just guys, period. Jackson would have been happier if the women in his life never left the house. But he knew even that wasn’t enough to keep them safe.” – One Good Turn
“When she was murdered his sister was just three years older than his daughter was now. Marlee was fourteen. A dangerous age, although, let’s face it, Jackson thought, every age was a dangerous age for a woman.” – Started Early, Took My Dog
“‘Women are safe again,’ and inspector said to her over the congratulatory beers and Tracy was so drunk that she had laughed in his face. As if taking one mad, bad bloke off the streets made women safe.” – Started Early, Took My Dog
The book series also features very few people of colour. Jackson does have a black best friend, Howell, who appears a in a grand total of two scenes: the first time as Jackson remembers him laughing at an old woman with a cat named “Ni**er”, and the second when he picks Jackson up from the hospital and accuses Jackson of “turn[ing] into a woman.”
So what should a feminist reader take away from this post and the books? I’ve found the analysis challenging and there are questions I’m still asking myself, so I thought I would leave them with you as well:
Then there’s one question I ask myself, which is why should I want to spend hours reading even really well-crafted novels about a guy with whom I wouldn’t want to have five minutes’ conversation? Sexism and homophobia are traits I have trouble accepting in a protagonist I’m supposed to care about.