“Run, Joanna. Run.”
These few words are the last Joanna hears from her mother in a brutal slaying that leaves only the small girl alive, hidden in a field of corn. Thirty years later, Dr. Jo Hunter has a new life, a small baby, and a spunky, recently hired sixteen-year-old mother’s helper, Reggie, who attends the baby while Jo is at the clinic.
Dr. Hunter’s husband is in business, albeit with some shady connections. Jo stays out of her husband’s affairs, secure finally after all these years - at least until the day Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe arrives on her doorstep with the news that the man who killed her family those years ago, Andrew Decker, has been released from prison.
Atkinson’s writing style is unique, aptly suited to this harrowing tale, a complex blend of characters who intersect with the plot at critical stages, converging in a shocking denouement. So it is with Jackson Brodie (from a previous novel, One Good Turn), a former detective who shares a past with DCI Monroe. On another mission altogether, Brodie takes a wrong turn, on a train to Edinburgh, not London, as he thought.
After a train wreck and a case of mistaken identity, Brodie finds himself in the middle of Monroe’s case. However, he is unaware of the looming threat soon to be faced by Dr. Hunter. Stumbling across Reggie, Brodie becomes embroiled in what appears to be a kidnapping for ransom but may be the final stroke of a murderer’s rampage after a long incarceration.
On a jagged trajectory toward one another, a convicted criminal is released, a former cop accidentally detours into Edinburgh, a train crash and a rendezvous with fate, and a sixteen-year-old mother’s helper clings desperately to the only “family” she has left. The incidents seemingly compartmentalized, in time these random associations prove cleverly orchestrated, one with another.
Atkinson is a facile puppet master, moving her pawns purposefully toward a final confrontation as devastating as the opening chapter of the novel. The theme is loss, the flawed characters all dealing with it in one manner or another, from the extremes of Joanne’s past to Reggie’s compensation since the death of her mother.
The juxtaposition of life and death yields the exquisite tension of this story: Monroe’s frantic search for Dr. Hunter and the baby; Reggie’s determination to make the authorities listen; Brodie’s utter confusion but good-heartedness in the face of extreme circumstances. Threat waits in the wings for a random cue, life hanging in the balance.
At the heart of the novel is the relationship between Dr. Hunter and Reggie, a woman who lost a family finding common ground with a girl clinging to her only chance for normalcy in an indifferent world. The stupidity of a foolish man throws Dr. Hunter into a violent situation, but Atkinson’s theme is threaded with the unexpected, “the wrong person at the wrong place at the wrong time.” Through her odd pairings and exigent circumstances, the author creates an engaging thriller, compelling even when the plot begs believability.