I have been a Kate Atkinson worshiper since her debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum. In fact I adored that one and her next two novels so much that I felt betrayed when it was announced that novel number four was going to be a mystery. Sorry my snobbishness is showing but there it is. How could my girl stoop to a writing a mystery after crafting such excellent literary novels? I like mysteries and I do read them but not nearly as often as I read novels. So in protest because I knew she'd feel it, I passed on reading her mysteries. I showed her.
Fast forward a couple of Atkinson's mystery novels later and I succumbed. You don't want to know the hairy details. Let's just say it involved a trade show, an excruciatingly airport delay with a boss I despised and a $12 tuna sandwich. My defeat was glorious. What a thrill to know how wrong I was and that I could have Kate Atkinson back close to my heart. Her idiosyncratic outlook, her canvas of eccentric, damaged, funny and sad characters are not things I want to be without.
Atkinson's detective is Jackson Brodie. He comes standard with a chunk of the classic crime solver attributes: a disastrous personal life populated by ex-wives, children he doesn't see enough of and great loss. He is secretly sensitive, intuitive and has a healthy disregard for authority but Brodie has more than enough individuality and quirky colleagues and acquaintances to make him unique. Something else that Brodie has to set him apart from other detectives is an author who routinely writes about his cases through the eyes of multiple narrators. This is more the trick of a novelist than a mystery writer. Atkinson's use of various points of view heightens the reader's stake in her characters lives and how much they have to gain or lose.
Started Early, Took My Dog. As with the other books in this series being at the wrong place at the right time for plot reasons gets the mystery started. The semi-retired Brodie is traveling, seemingly seeing the sights and musing over his messy life. Nearby a former policewoman, Tracy Waterhouse, turned private security manager witnesses a Mother mistreating her young daughter. Minutes later Tracey has purchased the child. This is the first time in Started that a child is separated from its parent but it won't be the last. Children who have been abandoned either by choice or by chance liter the landscape of this novel. They are the common denominator that brings Brodie, the police and the victims together.
Atkinson will occasionally rely on coincidence to advance the plot in Started. The mystery in her mysteries in general are interesting puzzles but not as tightly plotted as say an Agatha Christie or P.D. James. Atkinson does share their deceptively straight forward writing style but instead of her mysteries being a Who Done It, they are more like a How The Hell We All Got To This Point and are all the more complex for that perspective.
The strengths of Atkinson's novels (mystery or otherwise) are characterization and sophisticated, intricate relationships. In that way there is no such thing as a minor character in anything by Atkinson. In Started, Brodie and Waterhouse carry the bulk of the action but their characters are not allowed to go it alone. The amazing interweaving of people, their histories and agendas into complexities that you can sink your teeth into is exhilarating. Atkinson fills us up with bad local TV actors, sketchy cops, prostitutes, Polish contractors, new pets, over reaching government officials and former lovers all struggling for happiness around the Leeds area where Brodie was raised. What gets them each attached to the crimes and overlapping in each others lives in this novel is believable and important to the plot. No one dances through this book for the sake of mere entertainment, every appearance has a consequence.
Started Early, Took My Dog is Kate Atkinson quenching! How deliciously fabulous is that? Unfortunately I doubt that nice full-up feeling will last me the year or more until her next book comes out!
P.S. The cover? Terrific. Best mystery cover I have seen in a long time.