Saturday, April 23, 2011

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, 2004

Kate Atkinson's Case Histories is a mystery in the same way that Pride and Prejudice is a romance, or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is fantasy. It's a genre novel that expands, reconfigures and redefines its genre. Atkinson takes the conventions of the mystery genre and does something mildly revolutionary: she looks deeper.

For the majority of Case Histories' length, I was gearing up to announce it as the Best Thing I've Read in a While. I loved the characters, loved the style, loved the writing, and I could feel a great big shocker of an ending coming, something that would tie up all the loose ends and leave me floored.

It didn't come. The ending was graceful and emotionally resonant, but not at all what I was expecting. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I'm not sure I know.

The beginning of the novel introduces three entirely separate crimes: the disappearance of a young girl in the 1970s, a seemingly random knife attack on a law firm and the ax murder of a young farmer by his equally young wife. In the present day, run-down Cambridge private investigator Jackson Brodie begins investigating all three cases, even as someone desperately attempts to assassinate him.

Being a big reader of mysteries and someone who generally understands how they work, I assumed that the three cases would intersect, proving to be separate pieces of the same puzzle. I spent the entire novel trying (and failing) to find any way that the three cases could be connected.

Well, (SPOILER ALERT) it turns out that they aren't connected at all, at least not in the nuts-and-bolts way that you'd think. The solutions to the actual mysteries are all very easy to figure out on their own; they're only challenging when you're trying to connect them together. I'm not sure whether this makes Atkinson a cheat or a brilliant master of deception. I do know that Case Histories is not really a very good mystery in the classic sense.

So why is it still such an excellent book?

First of all, Atkinson is a terrific writer and she brings her characters to life with incredible vibrancy. She tells the story from the perspectives of four characters: Jackson, Amelia, the guilty sister of the missing toddler, Theo, the grieving father of a murdered office temp and Michelle, a woman attempting to fit back into society after being released from prison.

All of these characters are confronted by the wounds of past violence, all of them scarred by murder. Atkinson draws them with humor and grace and an incredibly subtle sense of humanity. Wrapping such careful character studies in an engaging mystery results in a book that's enjoyable on two totally different levels (and I've said, the literary merits of the novel are more impressive than the plotting).

Atkinson's deft prose tugs at the heartstrings without resorting to melodrama, and her mixture of sadness and humor is fabulously effective. There's something both funny and heartbreaking about the pathetic depths to which her characters sink: Theo's attempts to hold on to his daughter's memory, Amelia's bizarre psycho-sexual hang-ups, Jackson's existential loneliness and his frustration over his ex-wife's new persona. There's some flat-out wonderful writing here:

Jackson started to worry about being late. On the way back to the car park he had to fight his way against a herd of foreign-language students, all entirely oblivious to the existence of anyone else on the planet except other adolescents. Cambridge in summer, invaded by a combination of tourists and foreign teenagers, all of whom were put on earth to loiter, was Jackson's idea of hell. The language students all seemed to be dressed in combats, in khaki and camouflage, as if there were a war going on and they were the troops (God help us if that was the case). And the bikes, why did people think bikes were a good thing? Why were cyclists so smug? Why did cyclists ride on pavements when there were perfectly good cycle lanes? And who thought it was a good idea to rent bicycles to Italian adolescent language students? If hell did exist, which Jackson was sure it did, it would be governed by a committee of fifteen-year-old Italian boys on bikes. ---(page 136-137)

Case Histories is a fantastic literary novel, as well as a riveting--if ultimately unsatisfying--mystery. Its characters and style are memorable; the plotting, while gripping at the time, is less so. Still, this is a major novel in a lot of ways and I'm pleased to see that Atkinson has written several more Jackson Brodie novels. If she can put together a better plot, she'll be utterly unstoppable.

NEXT UP: A Breath of Snow and Ashes, the sixth Outlander novel.

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