This, the fourth of Kate Atkinson’s superb mystery novels, is all about losing and finding. Jackson Brodie, now mostly retired from his status as private detective, has lost his sister, his first two marriages, most of his fortune, and his faith in women, but he’s found man’s best friend — a dog called The Ambassador — and he’s engaged in finding the identity of a woman who was adopted thirty years ago. Meanwhile, Tracy Waterhouse has lost her long-term identity as a policewoman, and she’s found an abused child; Tilly Squires, an elderly actress, is losing her memory; and there are events from the past that are lurking around, waiting to be discovered by anyone dogged enough to find the right question to ask about those who are lost.
Jenny: I have to get this out of the way: I barely want to call this a mystery novel. Usually, mysteries follow the great formula of disorder-detection-order. But Atkinson’s novels are almost all disorder. One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News? were both novels that worked around the idea of coincidence, and Started Early, Took My Dog keeps repeating the phrase, For want of a nail. One tiny thing missing — a name forgotten, a meeting missed — and a whole life can fall apart. And, of course, this is no cozy. As Brodie says, “Real murder was disgusting. And smelly and messy and usually heartbreaking, invariably meaningless, occasionally tedious, not this neat sanitized narrative.” There isn’t much that’s sanitized, though there’s wit and deep charm, about Atkinson’s mysteries.
Teresa: Absolutely. Atkinson’s crime novels don’t follow the typical mystery pattern at all. For me, that was especially evident when it comes to Jackson Brodie himself. Instead of having a genius crime solver who can put all the pieces together and mystify everyone, we have a man who misses the solution again and again. I like Jackson Brodie, but a hero he is not. Instead, the real heroism is demonstrated by the most unlikely candidates—the overweight single woman, the dotty old lady, even the tiny little dog. The most vulnerable characters (and this is a world in which women, children, and animals are extremely vulnerable) end up having unexpected inner resources.
Jenny: Yes! And those inverted expectations range all over the story. Those who should protect fail to do so; those who need protection are stronger than we suspect. Atkinson is wonderfully unpredictable. One of the first things that I noticed about Started Early was that Jackson (our unheroic hero) had changed. Atkinson isn’t afraid to let her characters change and grow, instead of letting them be static characters that her readers can feel comfortable and familiar with. I had to get adjusted to his personality this time. And then I realized that this is part of the point of the story: people go missing, disappear from our lives, but they continue changing, and so do we. Life goes on.
I found this novel challenging to read at times because of the child-in-jeopardy motif. I’ve read a lot of novels that play on these themes, of course, and often I can dismiss it as unlikely or manipulative. But this one was so real that it broke my heart. Atkinson might be too good a writer for me.
Teresa: The children here are heart-breaking, but I also found their stories ultimately kind of hopeful. At the risk of venturing into spoilery territory, I’ll just say that the children in this book prove to be incredibly resilient. They get second chances or strong protectors, and they survive. But then, there’s the specter of the children who don’t, just there in the background.
One of the things that stood out to me was how taking on the role of protector changes people. The characters in this book are far more impassioned and determined when they’re looking out for someone else than when they’re looking out only for themselves. That rang true to me. I think people need to be needed, and Atkinson’s characters demonstrate this beautifully. Julia, Tracy, even Jackson all seem better off when someone–be it a child or a dog–is depending on them.
Jenny: You’re right about that, and about the gleam of hope at the end — even the hope that comes from being able to let go of hope when necessary. (The fact that one of the characters was named Hope did not escape me.) But it was never pat or sentimental. The transformations that took place were sacrificial, painful, difficult. Another thing I love about Atkinson — she doesn’t make it easy.
What did you think Tilly Squires added to the story? Her increasing loss of memory and swirl of thoughts around her own lost child seemed only tangentially related to the plot, at times. Was she the nail, for want of which everything would have gone wrong?
Teresa: Plot-wise, Tilly did seem only tangentially related, except at the very end. I read her as simply another example of the sorts of people who get discounted or left behind, who seem weak when they really aren’t. And Atkinson always seems to play around with coincidence. Tilly’s appearance at the end is a major coincidence, but I like how you put it—she does turn out to be the nail, in a way. Without her, who knows what disasters could have occurred?
This was also the first Jackson Brodie novel that seemed to cry out for a sequel. As best I can recall, the main mysteries in the other books were pretty well resolved by the end, but right in the final moments of this book we see Jackson starting to make some important connections. It makes me wonder if we’ve seen the last of Tracy and Courtney. I hope not, but then again, it wouldn’t surprise me if Atkinson decides to leave those loose threads dangling. Dangling threads are, after all, part of the messy reality of life.
Jenny: I happen to love ambiguous endings, and this one was a doozy. Just when Jackson has to let go of being able to ever solve one of the main mysteries at the center of his life, he begins to make a connection that, to me, is certainly leading back to our seeing Tracy and Courtney again. (This was tied up with a couple of clues that I almost missed, to be honest. I had to go back and search through the book for the mention I thought I had read, but didn’t quite remember.) An inexplicable murder and a ringing phone add to my sense that we haven’t seen the last of this particular set of people — and I would also like to see Louise Crawford again! But I won’t count on it. With every mystery Atkinson writes, I just feel grateful that we got another one, however it turns out. They are absolutely wonderful.