Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

by Sunita

Kate Atkinson just released her fifth Jackson Brodie novel after a years-long hiatus in which she wrote acclaimed general/literary fiction novels. I started and put aside this one years ago, and then I intended to go back after watching and enjoying Jason Isaacs in the TV adaptation but it has languished on my TBR. Discussion of the latest Brodie piqued my interest again, though, so I picked it up and started over from the beginning. This time I was prepared for the discursive, meandering style and the lack of emphasis on the actual investigative procedure aspect, and I enjoyed it a lot. So much, in fact, that I went straight on to start the next installment, One Good Turn.

Jackson Brodie is a 45-year-old PI. He’s an ex-military policeman and an ex-detective, born in Yorkshire but who has lived in Cambridge for the last decade-plus. He is recently divorced and shares custody of his eight-year-old daughter. His ex-wife, who when married to him neither wore a wedding ring nor changed her name, is now living with a Cambridge lecturer and knits, gardens, and generally does the hausfrau things she scorned with Jackson. Jackson doesn’t drink too much, but he has recently gone back to smoking too much and spends a lot of time musing about his life in internal monologues.

The plot itself comprises three crime threads, all of which we see from the characters’ POVs. The first thread involves the disappearance 35 years ago of a young child, Olivia, who is beloved by her sisters and her mother (the father, a self-described brilliant mathematician academic, is barely involved with his family). Her now middle-aged sisters discover her favorite stuffed animal among her fathers’ things after his death, which leaves them stunned and looking for answers. The second thread is about the senseless, unsolved killing of an 18-year-old young woman named Laura ten years previously and her father’s inability to stop looking for the killer. The third thread concerns a young family in which the wife was convicted of her husband’s brutal murder and their baby daughter Tanya was given to her paternal grandparents, but who as a teenager has disappeared. There is also a fourth character, Binky Rain, a very old woman who has dozens of cats and who calls Jackson every time one of them goes missing.

All these cold cases show up as cases for Jackson, who finds them a change from cat-wrangling and trailing wives whose husbands suspect them of affairs. We spend a lot of time in the past, seeing the family lives of each victim and tracing the events leading up to the deaths. In the present, Jackson becomes involved (in various ways) with Olivia’s now middle-aged sisters, Tanya’s aunt, and Laura’s father, Theo Wyre. His investigations are punctuated by his prickly encounters with his ex-wife, Josie, his loving relationship with his daughter, Marlee, and his love-hate with Cambridge (I liked the way the town-and-gown issues were depicted).

If you’re looking for a straightforward police procedural, this isn’t your book, and I think that was why I DNF’d it before. But this time I read it as a regular novel with criminal-investigation elements and it worked beautifully for me. I was looking for something that would take me into a different world, and Jackson’s endless ruminations and musings, as well as Atkinson’s excellent evocation of the Cambridge setting, did the trick. Jackson is a bit too good to be true in some ways, but he’s a flawed character for all that.

The crimes themselves are interesting and the links among the apparently unrelated events and people slowly reveal themselves. By the end of the novel the reader knows who everyone is (and how they are related to each other) but the characters don’t; the crimes are all explained, but not everyone is brought to book, or at least not in the pages of the novel. There are a lot of coincidences, and I had mixed feelings about the way it ended. Now that I’m into the second book I can see the point of the ending; it makes for new challenges that carry Jackson’s story forward, but I didn’t love it at the time. But that’s probably because I wanted a more crime-novel ending. Still, I definitely recommend the series if you haven’t read it, both in novel and TV form.