Sunday, 15 July 2012

Case Histories

Following on from yet another enjoyable jaunt with Inspector Rebus, I thought I'd dip into crime fiction again, but with a bit of a difference this time. Kate Atkinson was (is?) a writer of literary fiction with a couple of well-received novels under her belt when she appeared to take something of a sharp turn down the dark(-ish) alley leading to crime fiction. Four novels later, she hasn't reversed course just yet, and the private detective she invented, Jackson Brodie, has now washed up in a successful (as far as I can tell) TV series. Anyway, what's her first novel, Case Histories, like then?

Ex-army and ex-police, Jackson Brodie now resides in the low-rent end of Cambridge, plying a living as a private detective investigating - mostly - missing cats and potentially misbehaving wives at the high-rent end. On the subject of which, he also has an ex-wife who's now shacked up with an academic and is threatening to take their daughter on an extended trip to New Zealand. Into this professional ennui and personal strife, Jackson lands three new cases: a sister missing for 30 years; the unsolved murder of a daughter; and a misplaced niece, the daughter of a murderess. While Jackson gradually collates what little new information he can on these old, cold cases, his meetings with their clients proves at least as eventful. And the ante gets upped further when, for some unknown reason, it appears that someone wants to kill Jackson.

What a brilliant read. The first thing about it that struck me, and which surprised me, is that it's frequently a seriously funny book. While it does contain a handful of comedy set-pieces (Jackon's first encounter with his nemesis and an old tom cat being one of them), the humour largely stems from Atkinson's characters, particularly Jackson, who she has made endless sources of wry observations on life. Though life has treated him harshly - a fact that the reader is slowly and skilfully edged towards - Jackson is very amusingly insightful of both his own life and that of the others his line of work bumps him into.
[Julia] had one of those husky voices that sounded as if she was 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.
What I found more impressive was that Atkinson pulls this off in a book built on the rock solid foundation of loss. After a (brilliant) introduction to the three case histories that teeters towards loss, the text hovers above this for most of the time, but every so often dips down to remind the reader (if I can get all florid about it) of the yawning chasms in peoples' hearts when loved ones either die or disappear. Atkinson's creation of Theo Wyre, and his murdered daughter, Laura, is, in particular, unbearably sad. But this underlying loss gives the book a balanced texture and an unexpected (to me) veracity.

I was a little less convinced by the structuring of the book. Atkinson jumps around in time a lot, using this as a means to bump the reader's journey onwards. That seemed a little lazy to me, and rather confusing at times, as when significant between-chapters events that are obscured by small jumps forward in time are only gradually revealed to the reader. At one point I actually began to wonder if the copy I was reading had lost a few pages. And the end of the novel seemed a little like a rush to (opaquely, at times) tie up all of the loose ends. The deus ex machina of an unexpected inheritance doesn't help with this misgiving.

It's churlish to complain, what with the novel offering far (far) more than conventional crime fiction (yes, I'm looking at you Rebus), but the "detective" part of the tale is also a little bit unsatisfying. Jackson solves two of the three crimes relatively straightforwardly, basically by chasing up leads that were missed - only partially understandably - during the original investigations. I can't now remember if he actually solves the third case, but the reader gets to do this themselves via a seemingly completely decoupled plot strand and the book's occasional, and telling, mentioning of dates and ages.

These niggles aside, I really enjoyed this book. It made me both laugh out loud and deeply sad, but in the good way. I'll without doubt be getting to Atkinson's sequel novels in the near-future - not least to partake of Jackson's eminently agreeable company. Finally, much as shown when literary fiction writers "invade" science fiction (Atwood, McCarthy), it's yet another sign that the genres are ripe territory for writers who dare.

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