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.