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Monday, April 20, 2009

Case Histories

Frankly, Case Histories is my kind of detective fiction. Over the last few years, I find more and more that I am bored with the traditional whodunit that asks the reader to identify the real murderer from the multiple suspects, clues and red herrings sprinkled throughout the novel. These days I much prefer novels that delve deeply into the character of the murderer, the victim, and the detectives alike. I am no longer satisfied with “who did it.” I absolutely need to know the “why” of things and what makes all the main characters tick – or stop ticking. Kate Atkinson has written a literary detective novel that takes exactly that approach.

Case Histories features Jackson Brodie, a former Cambridge police officer now making his living as a private detective who is growing very weary of following wives at the request of husbands who suspect them of infidelity. His own wife has taken their little girl and moved in with another man, and Jackson cannot shake the feeling that his work and his personal life have become uncomfortably similar. There is just no escape for him.

Jackson is near his breaking point when asked to look into three old murder and missing person cases by relatives of the victims, and he gratefully welcomes the change-of-pace offered by the new work. In short order, he is asked to look into the 1970 overnight disappearance of a three-year-old girl from the backyard tent she shared with an older sister, the 1994 seemingly random murder of an eighteen-year-old clerk in her father’s law office, and the 1979 ax-murder of a man in front of his toddler daughter who has now herself gone missing.

Jackson Brodie works the three cases simultaneously, following each thread wherever it leads him while becoming more and more personally involved in the lives of those who have hired him. In the process, Jackson even manages to find time for an elderly long-term client whose cats seem to be disappearing one-by-one, and to survive the efforts of someone who seems determined to kill him.

The beauty of Case Histories is how Atkinson tells her story. There is nothing straight-forward about her approach; she uses a combination of flashback and differing points-of-view to allow the reader to see events more than once, each time adding a little more detail or shading that will meaningfully change what has come before. Layer-by-layer, she builds humanly flawed characters and adds them to the mix in a way that they all come together at the end in a satisfying finale that ties all the loose ends together.

Kate Atkinson is a talented juggler of multiple plot lines and numerous characters and, with Case Histories, she has produced a very fine mystery/character study without losing control of any of them. This one demands a little patience but, in the end, is great fun.

Rated at: 4.0

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