For years, the crime novels of Kate Atkinson have sort of drifted around me. A copy of One Good Turn was prominently displayed at my library for some time, and I used to pick it up and look at it almost every time I went to the library. A copy of When Will There Be Good News? once appeared on my office’s book discard shelf, and I also picked it up and looked at it several times. Around the time I finally decided to take it home with me, someone else had already claimed it. So I’ve been curious about Atkinson for a long time but never quite curious enough to take the plunge and seek out one of her books.
Jenny’s review of Case Histories last year took me past curiosity and caused me to put Atkinson on my list of must-read authors. And this year, Catherine‘s loan of the marvelous Behind the Scenes at the Museum revealed to me that Atkinson is an author I simply must follow.
Case Histories is the first of Atkinson’s three mystery novels about former police inspector turned private investigator Jackson Brodie. The novel opens with the recounting of three cold cases: the disappearance of a little girl from her backyard, the murder of a young woman in her father’s office, and a young wife’s going after her husband with an axe. The only thing they appear to have in common is Jackson, who is hired to look into some aspect of each case.
I mentioned in my review of Behind the Scenes that the actual story Atkinson tells is not all that unusual, but that the writing makes it shine. The same is the case here. The mysteries, taken on their own, really aren’t all that exciting; and the solutions are either obvious, uninteresting, or overly reliant on coincidence and authorial trickery. As a mystery, I’m not sure I can call Case Histories a success.
However, as a novel, I loved it. Atkinson’s writing covers over a multitude of sins, and I was utterly won over. I listen to audiobooks when driving, and I found myself wanting to take the long way to get to my destinations so I could keep listening! The audiobook reader, Susan Jameson, obviously understands the humor in the books, as demonstrated in her perfectly wry style of telling the story. I was roaring with laughter in some of the early sequences as Atkinson’s wickedly dark humor is on full display. Her sense of humor is absolutely right up my alley, and she gets extra points for tossing in an amusing Thomas Hardy reference.
Besides the humor, the other thing I really liked about the novel is the characters. Atkinson writes about the lost souls who populate the novel with compassion and honesty. She shows them engaging in sometimes absurd behavior without seeming to laugh at them, and she depicts some of their horrible wrongs without condemnation. I especially grew to love Theo, the grieving father hoping to find the uncover the identity of the man who knifed his daughter. But I was also impressed with her characterization of Amelia and Julia, the sisters of Olivia, the little girl who disappeared when the novel began. At a few points their story did border on the ridiculous, and I fretted that they would both just end up on opposite extremes of unfortunate single-woman stereotypes, but in the end, I think Atkinson pulled off the tricky task of making them odd and sad but not quite pathetic.
So now with two Atkinson novels under my belt, I intend to continue feasting on her wonderful writing. I already have the audio version of One Good Turn ready to go. This book does have a different narrator (Steven Crossley), so I wonder how that will affect my impression of Atkinson’s own voice. Her distinctive writing style is such that I can imagine having the wrong reader will kill the effect. We shall see how it goes!