Then there was this review excerpt below the title:
“Not just the best novel I read this year, but the best mystery of the decade....”
That’s high praise, I thought in a Nicholas Cage voice. And contrary to the title and cover art, it’s a mystery; I found that interesting.
Oh, that review excerpt was by Stephen King. THAT’S HIGH PRAISE, I screamed in my head in my own voice.
I was sold even before Stephen King’s pitch. This was during a time in my life where little marketing attributes, like a title or cover that seems slightly out of place, were enough to make me buy a book. This was also a time when I was adamant about finishing any book I started, no matter how awful.
Luckily, I wasn’t in such a bind. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson is great.
What wonderful powers of deduction you have Mr. Brodie,” Julia said, and it was hard to tell whether she was being ironic or trying to flatter him. She had one of those husky voices that sounded as if she were permanently coming down with a cold. Men seemed to find that sexy in a woman, which Jackson thought was odd because it made women sound less like women and more like men. Maybe it was a gay thing.
The Jackson here is Jackson Brodie, a former cop and now private-eye. He’s a melancholy small-time P.I. who pursues small-time ineffectual cases like infidelity accusations. This changes when three seemingly unrelated cases find their way to him. One is the case of Theo Wyre.
Theo is a lawyer who, as exhibit by the quote above, dotes on and greatly loves his daughter, Laura. His over-protection of her is what leads to her untimely death though, when she is stabbed in her father’s law office, the killer going unfound.
Time did not heal – it merely rubbed at the wound, slowly and relentlessly. The world had moved on and forgotten and there was only Theo left to keep Laura’s flame alive. Jennifer lived in Canada now and although they talked on the phone and e-mailed each other, they rarely talked about Laura. Jennifer had never liked the pain of remembering what had happened, but for Theo it was the pain that kept Laura alive in his memory. He was afraid that if it ever began to heal she would disappear.”
Theo’s become a sort of out of shape recluse since Laura’s passing. He seems to wallow daily in the sorrow of her loss, in a reserved, English sort of way (at least as his story is told to us.) This general reserve is useful in making passages which describe his love and loss all the more pointed.
Theo never doubted for a moment that when he died he would be reunited with Laura…. It wasn’t that Theo believed in religion, or a God, or an afterlife. He just knew it was impossible to feel this much love and for it to end."
As an American, I might dramatize the collective British psyche, so take the following perception with a grain of salt. Theo’s anguish over his dead child, his talking to God even though he doesn’t believe in one, his belief that the love he and his child shared couldn’t just evaporate with death – these are miniature aspects of a larger British sentiment. The UK is known for both a longstanding stiff-upper-lippery and a growing atheism. I speculate that during the last century science and war have exacerbated these characteristics. But the latter has also fomented a kind of unity that contains, to a certain arguable extent, intangible spiritual agreement. I wonder if the newest UK generations, not directly related to anyone who had to withstand a military attack, will possess the conditions I describe.
All this to say that Theo isn’t the only outwardly “reserved” character; all of the protagonists and suspects and instigators are. The plotting on a whole is held back, stripped of some common crime novel thrill formulas, and replaced with keen (sometimes witty) observation.
I think I’ve already Americanized a few words in this review. Dope!
As a pair, the Amelia and Julia quoted above are one of Brodie’s three clients. In childhood their younger sister, Olivia, went missing, never to be seen again. When their stodgy professor father dies and they find one of Olivia’s toys in his desk it peaks their suspicion – or longing for closure – and they hire Brodie to pursue the tragic cold case.
Another of Brodie’s three cases involves Caroline, who murdered her husband in a fit of rage. The act itself and the time in prison for it drastically estrange her from her sister, Shirley, and her daughter, Tanya.
The dutiful love mentioned in this excerpt is also dwelt on by Brody, in relation to his own family.
Even with Brody’s deflection at the end there, the ideas of obligatory love in Case Histories struck me as a valuable and pertinent reminder. Across the [Western] world we seem to be getting quicker to abandon those who don’t benefit us, or have betrayed us, or are hard to get along with. Our self-comfort and anger increasingly take the helm over a sense of duty in relationships. I say “we” and “our” because I’m ever guiltier as I age.
Back to the Caroline and Shirley subplot. After Caroline’s sentence for murdering her husband, she makes a new life (changes her name to Caroline) and marries again. This husband is wealthy, comes with his own children and an annoying mother.
Rowena, Jonathan’s mother, talked all the time about 'breeding' because she had a stable of hunters (big, frightening brutes), but sometimes she seemed to be applying the concept to her own family, and Caroline wanted to point out to her that natural selection led to a vigorous species whereas 'breeding' resulted in congenital defects, in pale, blond children who spoke French on Wednesdays and whose blank Midwich Cuckoo faces suggested latent idiocy. In Caroline’s professional opinion."
But Jonathan isn’t her only beau. She’s taken by a local priest.
Maybe he wasn’t the right person for her…. but surely there wasn’t just one person in the whole world who was meant for you? If there was then the odds against you ever bumping up against him would be overwhelming, and knowing Caroline’s luck even if she did bump against him she probably wouldn’t realize who he was. And what if the person who was destined for you was a shanty dweller in Mexico City or a political prisoner in Burma or one of the million people she was unlikely ever to have a relationship with? Like a prematurely balding Anglican vicar in a rural parish in North Yorkshire."
But while Caroline makes a new life, her sister, Shirley, searches the past. While Caroline was incarcerated, her daughter Tanya was left in Shirley’s care. Tanya eventually is made a ward of her grandparents, on her dead father’s side. They force what becomes and end to Tanya and her Aunt Shirley’s relationship.
Shirley hires Jackson Brody to trace the whereabouts of Tanya, who would now be a young adult. It is Brody’s narrative that interested me the most, maybe because I’m a simple sucker for the more sluethed aspects of a detective novel, and maybe it’s because Brody and his thoughts are just well crafted. Check these witty descriptions of him taking likings to women:
Both Sharon and the Dental Nurse had dark, enigmatic eyes, and they had a way of looking at him indifferently over their masks as if they were contemplating what they might do to him next, like sadistic belly dancers with surgical instruments."
Brodie’s weathered, sarcastic, can handle himself, is divorced and rough around the edges, haunted by the murder of his own sister as he investigated the murder of someone else’s. Case Histories is really a miserable set of circumstances all around. His wit and his tagalong daughter provide some needed sunshine throughout.
Marlee began to grumble in earnest. “I’m hungry, Daddy. Daddy.”
Case Histories isn’t a nail-biter. Its heavy, the air and plot more something to chew on slowly than flip through. It isn’t even slow in a Law & Order procedural type of way; it’s a set of family dramas that unfold like crumpled paper into a complex mystery. Read it if you like meticulously reading great writing.
Buy Case Histories HERE