Vicarious voyeurs

Kate Atkinson: Case Histories
Black Swan 2005 (2004)

A wonderfully intricate novel — my paperback edition has a gold interlace pattern on the cover, as if to underline to interplay of characters and destinies — Case Histories is the first in a series featuring the brooding figure of ‘investigative consultant’ Jackson Brodie. (I’ve already read the second, One Good Turn — out of order, as it happens — and reviewed it favourably.) The title references detailed notes and records about individuals’ medical or social backgrounds and, true to this description, Atkinson’s novel introduces us to a missing child, a young woman murdered on her first day at work, a husband killed with an axe in his home and, lastly, Jackson’s own tragic family life. How the lives of the surviving relatives intersect is the stuff of Case Histories, and it proves a real page-turner.

Not all is revealed early on, not by a long chalk; some insights only come in the last few pages, though we never really feel cheated — even the odd coincidences that wouldn’t normally stand up if you stated them baldly work here in an entirely naturalistic fashion. But it isn’t really the mechanics of a crime novel that keeps the reader enthralled, it’s the people. Atkinson’s strength is her depiction of characters that we can get to know vicariously, sharing her voyeuristic viewpoint, not only observing their actions but getting inside their heads.

These then are all flawed but credible persons: the grown-up daughters from a dysfunctional family; a father who obsessively, almost forensically, collects the circumstantial details surrounding his daughter’s death, sorting them in file cabinets and on a crime investigation board; a mysterious woman who is about to marry into landed gentry for no discernible reason; a homeless young woman who haunts the Cambridge streets, her path crossing several of the other characters; and the main protagonist, a taciturn former soldier and police officer now turned private investigator who wanders through the pages trailing secrets of his own.

The plot? Essentially, this is a labyrinth where we follow different threads, the clews somehow all getting caught up in a multi-coloured ball. Not all the various characters are able to reach the centre of the maze, but as observers we are able to draw our own conclusions from the evidence that the author presents. Like opening a gate in a wall and peering into the garden beyond, Case Histories appeals to our desire to sate our natural curiosity.

To say much more would be to spoil potential readers’ pleasure, but it may help to add that I’m really looking forward to reading the later novels involving Brodie — When Will There Be Good News? and Started Early, Took My Dog — which may be some measure of the genuine enjoyment I had from this.


10 thoughts on “Vicarious voyeurs

  1. I’ve read the first three Jackson Brodie novels and enjoyed them all. Atkinson’s characterisation is always very strong – I particularly loved Reggie, whom you’ll meet in When Will There Be Good News? You’ve reminded me that I still need to read the fourth book in the series!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I do enjoy stories that seem to have no connection and then connect — a classic for that was ‘Last Plane Out’ by John Ball.
    As I think I have remarked before, it is a pity writers have to avoid too many coincidences to retain credibility. Many series of them that regularly crop up in real life would be ridiculed if presented as fiction.

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    1. The trick is to make the coincidence appear both natural and inevitable — a hard balancing act — without feeling contrived. But, as you have indeed said before, real life often proves stranger than fiction — the number of times you are in some distant place and your neighbour, relative or long-lost best friend at school turn up strolling towards you or coming out of the same shop you’re going in or … you get the picture!

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      1. That is exactly the sort of thing I mean! But such an event can be regarded as credible, once. When it is said to have happened again with another person later the same day, one’s reaction is, ‘Oh, c’mon!’ Yet such double-takes are probably in everyone’s experience.
        Even single ones can be extraordinary. My wife and her sister, in different libraries on the same day, both took out copies of the same book on sudden impulse. The book, was on a topic they hadn’t been discussing or thinking about, particularly. Synchronicity was the topic!
        Put that in a story? Too risky.

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  3. How did I miss this review? Damn! Another set of books to buy. I do love her writing. Of her books I’ve read, only Emotionally Weird didn’t hit the spot for me. Will look forward to devouring these, thanks Chris

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  4. Ha! It’s interesting that we’ve mentioned the same things – the tragedies, the conicidences – and yet taken almost polar opposite views on them! Proving as always that all reviews say as much about the readers as the books… 😀 Glad you enjoyed it far more than I did!

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    1. I sometimes think it also has something to do with the mood we’re in when we read them—I was more disposed to like this at the time, though I may be more critical now at the coincidences. Still, I’m more forgiving of plotting than of characterisation, I suppose it comes from reading so many fantasies and children’s fiction!

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