Book #28: Case Histories

Read any Amazon.com review, or even check out the reader's guide at the back of the book, and chances are you'll see Case Histories described as a "literary mystery" novel. I'm not really sure what factors qualify a book to be considered "literary" - it's a nebulous definition that here appears to mean that the mystery in the novel (there are three main mysteries and a series of peripheral ones) come secondary to the relationships and themes Kate Atkinson addresses in her fourth novel and first to feature recurring private detective Jackson Brodie. There's also an emphasis on description and narrative as opposed to dialog - whole sections go by without anyone actually saying anything.

If any of this sounds boring it isn't - Atkinson's strength as a writer is to enfold you in the emotional dilemmas of her characters, allowing you the rare experience of not needing to hear someone speak to know what they're saying.

Case Histories opens with sketches of three tragic events - in 1971 Olivia Land, a precocious three-year old suddenly goes missing during a night sleeping outside. In 2004 Laura Wyre, a young woman bursting with life is brutally murdered her first day working at her father's law firm. Finally in 19-- (the date escapes me and I don't have the book in front of me) Michelle Morrsion seemingly takes an ax to her husband while their daughter watches. For various reasons and in various ways these three events find their way to Jackson Brodie, a bruised and morose ex-military and police inspector, dealing simultaneously with a nasty ex-wife, an eight year old daughter who dresses like she's 18, and a detective business that feels more like a burden than a job. As Jackson comes into the lives of the people associated with the murders he's forced to look into his own past and come to grips with the violent deaths within his own family.

The novel jumps back and forward in time, telling the story through the perspective of multiple narrators, of which Jackson is only one. The joy comes from the way Atkinson manages to slowly unearth a little of the puzzle at a time, not through incredible clues or through dogged detection (although that's there) but through intimate character moments. Jackson Brodie comes off as the ideal ladies man as re-thought for the 21st Century woman - tough but sensitive, a great father and, as the book notes, "one of the last good men." If there any any rough spots, it's that in some cases the additional characters only serve to flesh out Jackson's character more. Howell, his best friend really only serves as a deus ex machina and Shirly Morrsion, the sister of Michelle doesn't really go anywhere or do anything except to bring the mystery to Jackson and to serve as a way to tie up what I thought was the weakest of the stories.

Small complaints, though. Case Histories is a wonderful read and a refreshing way to view a murder mystery. Apparently this is the first in what looks to be a series of novels featuring Jackson Brodie (the second, One Good Turn, is out now) and if it's anything like this novel, that a good thing indeed.