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Kate Atkinson Returns, Looking For 'Good News'

Most thrillers cast their murderers from a dependable trinity: Lecter-like mastermind, garden-variety psychopath or misfit bent on revenge. But in the third in a series of mysteries featuring the shambling, world-weary detective Jackson Brodie, novelist Kate Atkinson takes on a depressingly real-life boogeyman: the guy who kills women and children.

A sharp departure from Atkinson's coolly constructed Case Histories and its antic, wandering follow-up One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News? combines the pathos of the first and the rudderless drift of the second to craft a text both urgent and unsettling.

Joanna Hunter is a successful physician and mother, the lone childhood survivor of a brutal attack in which her mother and siblings were murdered by a drifter.

Hunter's nanny, the recently orphaned Reggie, is plagued by a brother whose unsavory connections get her apartment firebombed.

Tetchy detective Louise Monroe (whom we first met in One Good Turn) ducks her new role as the wife of a posh, genial surgeon to surveil the house where a husband recently shot up his daughter's birthday party, knowing he'll likely return to kill his wife, who survived.

Even detective Jackson's home life is in disarray: the lovable bear, once tormented by the lost girls he makes his living finding, now stalks his ex's son, patting his head at soccer practice to pluck a hair for a paternity test.

When Joanna Hunter is kidnapped along with her infant son, the concurrent release of her family's murderer from prison brings together all four characters in a tangle of events. But the plot points are only stays holding together a far greater mystery: Where does the line between violent protectiveness and violent possessiveness gets crossed?

Ruminating on the latter's ubiquity, Louise wearily details "... guys who attacked women and children. They were different from guys who attacked women on their own, different too from ex-partners who jumped off cliffs and balconies with their kids, who ran exhaust pipes into cars with the kids in the back, who suffocated them in their beds, who ran after them with knives and hammers and clotheslines, all on the basis that if they couldn't have their kids, then nobody was going to, and particularly not their kids' mothers." The mothers themselves, Louise thinks, are also in a singularly vulnerable position: "If you were on your own, you could fight, if you were on your own, you could run. You couldn't do either when you were with children."

But if When Will There Be Good News? offers a distinctive examination of domestic violence, its take on the "visceral and overpowering" nature of love (quoth Jackson) is also singular. Atkinson's view of family roils with danger and possibility that eclipse the intrigue of romantic love. As marriages fly apart, the happy couple left standing at book's end is Joanna (left for dead twice and come back both times) and nanny Reggie, clucking happily at the baby, in a place where "the bond at the heart of everything," as Louise says, manages to be the only one that endures.

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Lizzie Skurnick's reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and "many other appallingly underpaying publications," she says. Her books blog, Old Hag, is a Forbes Best of the Web pick and has been anthologized in Vintage's Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web. She writes a column on vintage young-adult fiction for Jezebel.com, a job she has been preparing for her entire life. She is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.