(Black Swan 2010)
Kate Atkinson is an author new to me, though I’ve often meant to read her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Started Early, Took My Dog is her eighth novel and the fourth to feature private investigator Jackson Brodie, and could be easily classified as a crime novel. Not having read any of the other books featuring Jackson is not a major drawback, though I guess that anyone who has read about his previous adventures will come to this book with more of an appreciation of his character and history than I did. That said, Jackson is an appealing character – competent in his chosen profession but rather inept in his personal life and his relationships with women and his children.
The story follows four main strands, three in the present day and one in the past: the first being Jackson’s search for the early history of a New Zealand woman, adopted as a child and wanting to know something of her birth mother; the second, and main strand, is the surprising and uncharacteristic behaviour of Tracy Waterhouse, former police officer and now shopping centre security chief; the third follows elderly and confused actress Tilly (and allows Atkinson to get in some good jibes about formulaic TV detective shows by creating ‘Collier’, such a show); and the fourth – which eventually meshes in with the other three – of a police investigation in the mid-1970s after the discovery of the body of a dead woman in a flat along with her young son.
There’s a good deal of cynicism in this book about the state of the UK, and Atkinson is wry about the gentrification of Leeds, which is where the book is primarily set, in comparison to its industrial past. The characters are delightful – fully-fleshed and well-rounded – and are, even the minor characters, drawn with psychological realism and (mostly) affection. The changes of point of view are seamless and not disorientating, and there are moments of black humour (though it’s not as funny as some of the reviews might have you believe), as well as an angry consciousness about child abuse, police corruption and the modern world’s general indifference to the needs of others.
There’s a strong sense of history in the book, both of the characters and of Yorkshire in general – both the rural and the urban – and it gives a depth to the plot which makes it very satisfying to conclude. It is also, however, bang up to date, with mention of Facebook, iPhones and googling, such technological crutches of our daily lives but which rarely get mentioned in much fiction – probably for fear of dating the book.
It’s a moving book, because Atkinson makes you care about the characters, writing about them with detachment but with affection; they all go through significant emotional and practical changes which may change their lives completely. Her prose is generally unflowery and sparely descriptive, and the dialogue is naturalistic; the mysteries are sufficiently mysterious to keep things moving and are well tied-up at the end.