Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Review: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

I first read Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum more than 20 years ago and was impressed by the creativity and writing talent she displayed in those pages. But I didn't read her following books, in part because she started writing the Jackson Brodie series (Case Histories is the first book in that series) and I avoided all mysteries like the plague for a lot of years. Then I read her masterful Life After Life, which reminded me of what an impressive writer she is. But again, even though I've started dipping my toe into mysteries if I think I won't be pushed too close to nightmare territory (and that territory is fairly large and comprehensive in my life), I still didn't go back to the mysteries because the first one, this one, looked like it had the potential to cross that line. And then a group of friends decided to read it together. And I remembered how wonderful her writing is. And I decided to give it a try. And I liked it.

Opening with three seemingly unrelated case histories separated by many years, these cold cases become the backbone of main character Jackson Brodie's investigations. Jackson served in the army before becoming a police officer and now a private investigator. His own life is complicated, a tragedy in his childhood, a failed marriage, on-going custody issues with his ex-wife over his beloved young daughter, and an investigation business that isn't making any money. In fact, one of his most consistent clients is the elderly, genteel but racist Binky Rain, who is convinced that her cats are being stolen, and a husband convinced that his flight attendant wife is cheating on him despite the fact that Jackson has assured him she's not. Then one by one, the case histories presented in the opening chapters land in Jackson's lap. All of a sudden he's investigating three year old Olivia Land's 1970 disappearance at the behest of two of her surviving sisters, the 1994 unsolved murder of Laura Wyre at the behest of Laura's desperately grieving father Theo, and the unknown whereabouts of her baby niece after her sister Michelle killed her husband by splitting his head open with an ax in 1979 at the behest of Michelle's sister Shirley. Although there is only new evidence in the case of little Olivia's disappearance, evidence that only surfaced recently after the elderly Mr. Land died, Jackson isn't confident that he'll manage to uncover the truth in any of the seemingly unrelated cases. He can't afford not to take the cases though, both monetarily and emotionally. And as he is investigating, there are several attempts on his life, adding yet another mystery to the the layers already present.

This is billed as a literary mystery and it is that. It is unlikely that readers will solve the cases themselves and as this is not strictly a whodunit but rather a case study of human beings, a deep look at the impact of violence on the people left behind, how the uncertainty shapes them, and the lives they carve out for themselves in the aftermath of tragedy, not being given all of the clues is beside the point. Atkinson delves deeply into not only Jackson, but also people most effected by the devastation of the crimes. Chapters are told focused on a close reading of Jackson, Amelia Land, Theo Wyre, and Caroline Weaver, including passages that are almost stream of consciousness, as each of the plot threads twist closer and closer to their resolution, either partial or whole. The novel has a complicated structure weaving together so many disparate plot lines and gathering them into a tight and deliberate single story.

Case Histories is a good introduction to Jackson, showing his past and his present, the way he works, those things that are most important in his life, and who he is. His ponderings on each of the cases reflect his worries and feelings for his daughter. This is a book about loss and family dynamics, the horrors human beings endure and those they inflict on others. It is a novel about the taken, the missing girls and women who disappear, who seldom, if ever, get justice. The case histories that the novels open with do get closure in the end, where they are retold with their heartbreaking, sometimes ugly, truths fully on display. The writing is gorgeous but the structure of the novel may mean it's not for everyone. It is the first in a series, so plot threads from Jackson's life are left unresolved. The victims in the case histories do come across as fairly stereotypical but luckily Atkinson more fully draws the remaining characters and even makes the subjects of those case histories (with the possible exception of Olivia) much more realistic as the novel goes on, bringing them off the flat page of their police files. I don't know if I intend to read more of the Jackson Brodie mysteries, but I enjoyed this one and was pleased to see that Atkinson's skill as a writer was evident here.


  1. Thanks - I'll give this one a try. Cheers

  2. I have enjoyed the Brodie Jackson series, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed if you continue to read it.


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