Friday, July 12, 2013

CASE HISTORIES by Kate Atkinson

Having run out of mysteries by Donna Leon and Michael Connelly and C.J. Sansom and P.D. James and Peter Lovesey, I am deeply grateful to whichever of my bibliophilic friends recommended Case Histories (2004). As Stephen King gushes in his front-cover blurb, "Not just the best novel I read this year, but the best mystery of the decade."

From the start, the story sounded eerily familiar: a child gone missing over 30 years before; three feuding sisters; a weird cat lady next door. About halfway through the book, I finally Googled Jackson Brodie, the private eye who was working this case along with several others.

Oh right - a year or two ago, my husband had recommended a Masterpiece Mystery episode because it starred Jason Isaacs, known to Harry Potter fans as Lucius Malfoy. David thought I would want to see how he looked with dark brown hair. (Stunning!)

It was a good show, and I plan to watch more episodes now that I've read the book. I also plan to read the next three Jackson Brodie books, and no doubt some of Kate Atkinson's other novels as well. The woman can write!

Jackson is a typically depressed private detective -  divorced, bitterly at odds with his ex, absent-mindedly devoted to their eight-year-old daughter, trying (but not too hard) to give up smoking, taking on jobs that are "either irksome or dull" because he needs the money. Originally from the north of England, he now works in Cambridge, where for 12 years he was on the police force. He's attractive (and attracted) to women, but there's no love in his life.
He was currently seeing more of his dentist than he had of his wife in the last year of their marriage. His dentist was called Sharon and was what his father used to refer to as "stacked." She was thirty-six and drove a BMW Z3, which was a bit of a hairdresser's car in Jackson's opinion, but nonetheless he found her very attractive. Unfortunately, there was no possibility of having a relationship with someone who had to put on a mask, protective glasses, and gloves to touch you.

He wishes he could throw it all over and escape to France.

Jackson doesn't show up until page 45, however. Up to that point we learn about three case histories - the missing child (1970), a murdered 18-year-old girl (1994), a young mother who goes berserk and - does what? (1979) - with which he will eventually be involved. We suspect the stories are somehow intertwined.

When it comes to detective stories, I have a couple of pet peeves. One is overcomplexity: I like to be able to follow a story without taking extensive notes (I eventually quit reading Elizabeth George, who is a fine novelist, for just that reason). My other pet peeve is shifting viewpoints. Very few novelists are able to switch from the mind of God to that of the detective to that of the criminal without sounding like poorly edited amateurs.

Kate Atkinson managed a complex plot and over half a dozen viewpoints without ever causing my pet-peeve alarm to buzz.

Because so many viewpoints are represented, Case Histories is not a procedural, though a certain amount of detective work is involved. Neither is it a thriller, though it includes a few fights and one big explosion. It would be misleading to call it a psychological novel: though it's literary, it's by no means a navel-gazer. There are many puzzles in the multiple stories, but the emphasis isn't on whodunit. I guess I'd just call it a brilliant detective story and resist adding subclassifications.

Atkinson's characters, like most people we know, are simultaneously tragic and comic. I suspect that she, like Jackson, believes that her job is "to help people be good rather than punishing them for being bad."

And maybe that's why - apart from the author's obvious skills in plotting, characterization, and literary style - I really liked this book. Despite all the human frailty and downright evil portrayed in it, the underlying tone is optimistic. Sometimes it's even laugh-out-loud funny.

Warning: There's enough sex in this book - most of it pretty amusing - that you might not want to read it aloud to intergenerational family groups.

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