Case Histories by Kate Atkinson: A review

Case Histories is certainly not your typical mystery. It is more of a literary fiction/mystery hybrid, perhaps weighted on the side of literary fiction. Still, it contains all the elements and many of the stock characters of the mystery formula, including exploited teenage runaways, innocent female murder victims, blowsy and outrageous middle-aged actresses, strait-laced and uptight spinsters, pathetic and hapless males, and wives with secrets. Moreover, it has the world-weary detective, existing in his own world of pain, who feels driven to try to protect, or occasionally avenge, all of these characters.

The book begins with the telling of three case histories, any one of which could have been the backbone and beginning of a literary fiction novel.

First, we have the story of Olivia Land, the youngest and favorite of four Land daughters. The child disappears one hot summer night when she is three years old and she is never seen or heard from again. Thirty years later, two of the sisters find a troubling clue regarding her disappearance which makes them look for a detective to reopen the investigation of the case. 

Second, we meet Theo, a man with two daughters, Jennifer and Laura. Laura is the younger and more beloved daughter. Theo delights in her beauty and intelligence. She is perfect in every way in his eyes. Then she goes to work as an intern in her father's law offices and, on her first day there, the unspeakable happens, turning poor Theo's world upside down. The perpetrator of the unspeakable crime is never found and many years later, Theo seeks the truth and closure.

Third, Michelle is a young wife and mother who is stressed out, probably suffering from postpartum depression. Her husband is not understanding. One day she snaps and her world as well as her family's - including her sister's - is shattered. Years later, the sister, too, looks for a detective who will bring her closure. But is the story that she tells true? 

After reading these three case histories, we meet the detective who will take on all three. Jackson Brodie is a bit of a down-and-outer whose private detective agency is not going very well. Mostly, he is engaged to investigate domestic disputes. He's presently following an airline attendant whose husband thinks she is cheating on him. In fact, following her is extremely boring because she doesn't seem to be doing anything.

Then, in rapid succession, Brodie is presented with these three new cases, long cold cases for which his clients need resolution, much as he needs resolution in his own sloppy personal life.

Brodie has an ex-wife who seems a bit of a bitch and an eight-year-old daughter who seems to be slipping out of his control and yet whom he adores. He has an old client, whom he has never billed, a cat lady who hires him to locate her missing cats! She will loom large in the development of one of his new cases.

Jackson Brodie certainly fulfills the formula of the former policeman, world-weary private detective with a heart of gold. He is an engaging and empathetic character who is also full of humor and gets off some good one-liners throughout the book.

In fact, a big part of Atkinson's talent is her humor. She is able to write about very sad and troubling events with a light touch which makes them bearable to read about. Indeed, as one reviewer that I read wrote, she is "able to see the way happiness and sadness can emerge from the same situation." That seems a rare gift for a writer and it made reading this book a joy.

In the end, the reader gets some resolution of all the case histories. Brodie's clients are not all necessarily as lucky. But then, as we learn, they don't all necessarily deserve such resolution. As I said at the beginning, this is not your typical mystery.


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