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Case Histories by Kate Atkinson


Case Histories
Kate Atkinson
(2004, New York: Little, Brown and Company)

I have not done a  proper review of an adult's book since, erm, since... since college (I think), but this time I had to skip over the kids' books to laud Atkinson's Case Histories, because it is a fantastic, fantastic book with one caveat: I do not think it works as well as a whodunnit along the likes of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers, even though the publishers have marketed it along with a byline from Stephen King, "The Best Mystery of the Decade". Rather, it is a powerful story about broken and brittle human nature, which just happens to feature a private investigator, murder and missing persons. The writing is brilliant, as Atkinson sets the reader rediscovering the wonders that is hidden in the adjective and adverb (and this reader in particular reaching for her dictionary for the first time in a long while), and the twists and turns in the plot unimaginable and highly engrossing. Most importing, the voice of the narrator is so overwhelming that I find myself swept up in the tide. The book accompanied my convalescence and through its 387 pages, I had not felt the fever I was burning.

The book starts with its namesake: case histories. Three chapters described the setting, the place, the characters, the human emotions and relations leading to three specific cases: 1) a missing girl; 2) a random attack and brutal murder of a young office worker and 3) a bloody murder within a household. These three chapters could have stood as short stories in their own right, with the amount of detail given to each character' appearances, thoughts and desires, however minor they are in the scheme of things. Atkinson fleets in and out of each character, immersing the reader in the psyche of each of them in such an empathetic manner that you cannot help but feel strongly for them, even without knowing whether they are victims or perpetrators of the crimes. And this is before the story actually begins! 

It moves on quickly to introduce the protagonist, the private investigator, Jackson Brodie, who will now be involved in each of these cases. Brodie is a world-weary man, dreaming of retirement in France even as he struggles to maintain his relationship with his eight-year old daughter after a bitter divorce. Each of the cases begin to unravel slowly, as Brodie interacts with different people connected with the cases. I had expected the cases to be connected somehow, but was somewhat gratified that they did not (too coincidental otherwise) - but the plot thickened in each of them in tandem. Here I thought Atkinson is absolutely genius - moving seamlessly between past and present, and in between three different cases, each held together only by Brodie (and very sparingly, at that) and the narrative voice, and yet never losing the reader. What's more, all the while she strings the reader to the conclusion of the cases, dropping clues and hints in the most subtle use of language.

In th end, the three cases were retold from the third case first. A character study of one of the victims (and I include the families of the victims in this term, since they too suffered for the crime perpetrated) preceded a recount of the crime as it had happened. It was a good plot device, echoing the beginnings of the book, and thus drawing the reader to a closure. On first account, the "solutions" to the cases come across as unexpected, shocking even, but I realise belatedly that had I been more sensitive to Atkinson's descriptions of the characters, I would have picked up some of these clues already.

Unlike the end of Sherlock Holmes or Herbert Poirot mysteries, I had not walked away thinking, what brilliant mysteries, what brilliant crimes, how damn intelligent and how on earth did I not see that coming. Instead, I walk away from Case Histories mourning, having cared so deeply for the pains and sorrows of each individual character, whose lives were never the same again for the crimes; I walk away keenly aware of the fraility of human nature, and I walk away with another Atkinson book in hand.
Tags: genre: mystery, xxx author last name: a-h
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