Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson

Ever since reading Behind the Scenes at the Museum , I’ve loved reading  Kate Atkinson. That particular novel, her debut, reminded me of Angela Carter in many ways; whimsical, funny, scathing, poignant, literary and very readable, but with less magic.

This book is the fourth detective novel she has written, that began with Case Histories, followed by One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News? and now Started Early, Took My Dog. Each has had Jackson Brodie at the centre of complex plots, with Atkinson spinning fascinating yarns about the loss of childhood, innocence and indeed, the loss of people, which our hero Brodie always finds himself looking for.

Brodie is a great hero: full of quiet dignity and quirky character traits. Atkinson enjoys using her male protagonist to highlight the slightly autistic nature of men generally; collecting things particularly. Brodie remarks of his distinctly male habit,. in a sombre tone ‘I often think I am doomed to collect lost children.’

His behaviour is unpredictable and he often finds himself bemused more than informed as the narratives unfold, but he has a warmth and charm, as well as a sense of humour that is rarely seen in crime detectives.

Since introducing Brodie, he has survived many escapades, not least a marriage to an actress, escaping a train crash, leaving the Edinburgh festival alive. And now, with Started Early, Took My Dog, he finds himself searching through the roots of a distant client’s family tree. The client, an adopted Yorkshire girl now living in New Zealand, recruits Jackson to find out who her real parents are.

At the same time, a lonely retired police-woman finds herself in an unexpected parental role, an elderly actress finds her sanity unravelling as she struggles with her lines and the story of a murder in 1975 becomes increasingly important.

Brodie’s own tragic past is never far away from the narrative; it seems every character is touched by grief, none more so than Brodie (except perhaps his ex-wife), as the first few chapters remind us, when Brodie watches snow falling on his windscreen:

“He had a sudden, unexpected memory of his sister coming into the house, laughing and shaking blossom off her clothes, out of her hair. He thought of the town they were brought up in as a place devoid of trees and yet here she was in his memory like a bride, a shower of petals like pink thumbprints on the dark veil of her hair.”

This novel is about loss, about grief, about responsibility and parenthood. It is also about chance (‘for want of a nail…’). It deals with big themes but in a life affirming way, never dwelling too long on the blood and gore, but delving below it to find the heart and implication of these events.

It paints a lead grey picture of northern life in the 1970’s- the most haunting and stark of the sections in the book. Prawn cocktails, avocado bathrooms, heavy drinking policemen and sexism all feature highly. This bleak, poverty stricken Yorkshire is rendered with affection though, and more heart wrenching for it. Many of the characters talk of the ‘good old days,’ though as the story progresses, the irony of this becomes more apparent.

It is also a great crime detective novel. But it feels like a disservice to describe it as such. Atkinson’s novels are detective stories in the same way Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go is science fiction; the narrative is so fresh, the language so convincing and the characters so true that you forget you are entering a fictional world. The genre conventions are subverted so much, they become something totally unique.

In this one, Atkinson’s narrative voice is stronger than ever, but it has never been the usual gumshoe voiceover; Atkinson inhabits her characters completely, but her voice still shines through. And it is her distinct voice that threads the complex plot together, detailing a huge variety of characters, making you question why she is spending so much time with someone who seems (only seems) incidental to the plot.

Her writing is a treat, her sentences jam-packed with imagery, but her desire to get under the skin of these characters can occasionally make you feel a little directionless; wondering what has happened to the story while you read about an ageing actress’ love life. It leads to the odd slump in pace but that is a very minor qualm. Just as you get a little distracted by a character’s stream of consciousness, you are lurched suddenly back in to the heart of the story and the excitement picks up again.

This book is brilliantly structured, written with poetic grace and a sense of humour that underpins the tragedy and horror. Brodie is brilliant, and such a great character that you miss him when he’s not at the centre of the action (one sly nod to genre convention is the inclusion of a sidekick; the perfect partner for Brodie being a scratty dog who has some of the funniest moments in the book.)

Read this one. Or, better still; read them all, you won’t regret it.

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