Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Case Histories

By Kate Atkinson

New York, Back Bay Books, 2004

Week 47 Fiction

I bought Case Histories two or three years ago and began to read it twice. I frankly don’t know why I stopped, but it sat buried in my pile of “to read” books until I dragged it out last week. I wanted to read a mystery as a means of escape. This book did not deserve to be buried. It should have been read long ago, but then it wouldn’t have had a place on the blog.

It is anything but a formulaic murder mystery. First, the detective, Jackson Brodie is a gem of a character, peripatetic and idiosyncratic. (How about those words!) Second, the victims and those surrounding them are equally intriguing. And third, the book is very funny in spots, which is rather unique considering how grisly some of the crimes are.

The first part of the book is the set-up. Jackson Brodie, a former police detective and now a private investigator, is hired to bring closure to three cold cases that the police have long since given up. One is the mysterious disappearance of a toddler, the second the unsolved murder of a teenaged office worker, and the third is the search for a girl whose mother is a convicted ax murderer. Jackson, who is the divorced father of a ten-year-old girl himself, takes all these victims to heart as he seeks to bring closure to each of the families.

Luckily for the reader, the chapter headings tell who the chapter is about and when the action took place. Otherwise, it is a bit hard to fathom exactly where you are in the narrative. Much like A Visit from the Goon Squad, there is quite a bit of movement from the past to the present and back, but like a good mystery, seemingly wandering plots become tied up at the end.

There is also a lot of coincidence that in the hands of a less-talented writer might cause the reader go “Oh, yeah! Like that’s going to happen.” But it is all so skillfully woven that the reader never once doubts the coincidences. As the Washington Post reviewer mentions, “In a mystery where the dead bodies turn out to be far less important to the story than the survivors who mourn them, the coincidences seem almost mystical: markers of a grand, melancholy design built from the sorrows of anyone who has ever lost a loved one and never gotten over it.”

The families of the victims are a remarkable set of characters, each one so finely drawn that the reader could almost sketch them on a piece of paper. As readers of murder mysteries know, this is a rare thing in this genre, especially when there are this many stories being told. Some of the characters are downright funny, especially the two middle aged sisters, who had been young girls when their little sister disappeared. Their bickering and flirting with Jackson brings on some delightful chuckles. The New York Times reviewer notes, “ Although solutions and surprises abound, in Case Histories Atkinson is less interested in detailing the steps of an investigation than in exploring the rough and tumble that happens along the way. Her humor -- and she is a very funny writer -- is the sort that comes from being able to see the way happiness and sadness can emerge from the same situation. Her reach is certainly long enough to touch cruelty and grief, but it also extends far in the opposite direction -- all the way to joy.” And the Washington Post reviewer says, “Kate Atkinson...seems to have intuited that the most compelling mystery of all isn't necessarily whodunit, but rather howtodealwithit.”

Kate Atkinson had written several novels before Case Histories, including the Whitbread Award winner, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but the detective Jackson Brodie was a character worth exploring further, and so there are three other Brodie mysteries, including One Good Thing, When Will There Be Good News and the soon-to-be released, Started Early, Took My Dog. Coming, as well, is a BBC One television series called Case Histories.

Here is the New York Times review quoted above:

And the review in the Washington Post:

Her website:

and a YouTube of her reading about Jackson Brodie:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think I will pick this one up--thanks! Rae