Jackson Brodie Strikes Again

Elisabeth Blais

Started Early, Took My Dog

400 pages (Paperback)

Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books

 

Imagine, if you will, a story about a man and a woman who are looking for each other. Not in a romantic way, but in a mutually beneficial way, nonetheless. If they can find one another, they will help each other tremendously. Around the midpoint of the story, the man manages to pick up the woman while she is hitchhiking. They sit next to each other for an extended period of time while traveling, each contemplating what their next step should be. They converse, but somehow manage to not introduce themselves. The story bounces back and forth between his and her perspectives, and after a couple of chapters, they part ways, never to meet again. This is one of the scenes from Started Early, Took My Dog, Kate Atkinson’s latest novel (recently released in paperback), which is in equal parts compelling,  yet frustrating to the reader.

 

Started Early, Took My Dog is the fourth novel in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series. Brodie has appeared in three previous novels by Atkinson, but he’s merely one consistent player among a changing ensemble cast in each book. Atkinson’s books don’t really qualify as mysteries. Yes, Brodie is a policeman-turned-private detective, but the projects he works on are not your typical ‘CSI’ scenarios. He is not confronted with murder scenes, where he must rely on his superior investigative skills to uncover clues, then pull out his Sherlock Holmes-like brain power for a big reveal. More often than not, Brodie chances onto a solution by accident or simply by being in the right place at the right time.

 

The story takes place approximately two years after Atkinson’s previous Brodie novel, When Will There Be Good News. Atkinson skillfully weaves  the recurring Brodie character into a new troupe of characters, and she provides enough of a backstory so that  readers don’t have to have read the three previous novels to understand the plot. However, those familiar with Brodie’s past will appreciate a few “wink-wink, nudge, nudge” references and inside jokes from his previous incarnations. 

In this chapter of Brodie’s life, he’s on the search for his “wife” who appears to have taken a large sum of his money and split. He has also  been tasked with tracking the adoption and birth parents of a client who seems to have no verifiable background and, indeed, seems never to have existed at all. We also meet Tilly, an older actress who is suffering from ongoing dementia; Tracy a retired- policewoman-turned-mall-security-guard who makes an impulse purchase of enormous proportion; and Barry, a policeman who was involved in a suspicious case with Tracy 35 years earlier.

 

The story is narrated from the point of view of each character,  and the author does  a skillful job of keeping the narrative going while changing perspective. More literary readers may also pick up on a number of references sprinkled throughout “Started Early”: from the title (thank you, Emily Dickinson) to quotes from Cormac McCarthy and Julius Caesar.

 

 One weakness in Atkinson’s writing is that her characters often tend to be stoic to the point of disbelief. There are numerous occasions throughout each of her books where, if one character had just spoken up, said what was on his or her mind, explained the circumstances of what had happened with just a few more sentences or, in this case, bothered with introductions, then the plot problem  would be solved. 

 

As a reader who regularly figures out surprise endings around chapter three, an equally frustrating component  of this book (and Atkinson's previous novels) is that her plot twists tend to be as much a surprise to the main characters as they are to the reader. Often the resolution feels akin to those murder mysteries where there are five characters, and the ending reveals the killer to be some unknown sixth character only introduced at the last minute. While this  may not  typically be the case in Atkinson’s books, the reveal is often something easily overlooked by readers and characters alike. But thanks to interesting interwoven plots, captivating characters and witty dialogue, you  are intrigued enough to read on.

 

ON TV: Catch “Case Histories,” adapted from Kate Atkinson’s novel, When Will There Be Good News?, on “Masterpiece Mystery” on PBS at 9:00p.m. ET on Sunday, October 30.

Photo (above): Jason Isaacs stars as Jackson Brodie in "Case Histories" (PBS).

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