Early on British crime novelist Kate Atkinson found a formula for success and she has followed it with consistency ever since. If it works, and believe me it does work, why look for trouble? Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1995, but it was with the introduction of Jackson Brodie, the private detective with a tough guy exterior masking a compassionate inner nature, in the 2004 Case Histories, that she hit her stride. Three other Brodie novels have followed; each garnering their share of both critical and popular success. Indeed, the first three of the books have been adapted for TV by the BBC in the six part series Case Histories that is currently running on PBS.
Essentially the Atkinson formula involves weaving together a variety of seemingly disparate story lines and then showing how in fact they were all somehow related. Think Thomas Hardy’s famous poem “The Convergence of the Twain.” You’ve got the Titanic; you’ve got the iceberg: two separate strains moving inexorably to their meeting at sea. Reading Atkinson is like working on a puzzle, trying to figure out how she is going to weave it all together, and it is fascinating how she manages to do it—the first few times, anyway.
I first came across Atkinson when I reviewed the second of the novels in the Brodie series, One Good Turn. I was duly fascinated, fascinated enough to run out for a copy of Case Histories. In 2008 when her third, When Will There Be Good News, came out I was still on board even though, by this time, there was little surprise that all the diverse strains came together at the end. It was only a question of how she would get it done. Still, you had to admire the author’s ingenuity and skill.
Having just finished Started Early, Took My Dog, Atkinson’s latest, I must admit to something less than fascination. It is not that the book is poorly done. It is certainly as well put together as her others, perhaps even better. Set in Leeds and moving about the Yorkshire area, there are the obligatory diverse strains. Jackson Brodie is searching for the birth parents of an adopted woman living in New Zealand. A retired police woman, Tracy Waterhouse, buys a child of a local prostitute. Years ago when Tracy was first starting police work, she discovered a child in the locked apartment of a murdered prostitute, and the investigation was handled oddly by an upper level official. An elderly actress working on a locally shot TV series is having significant problems with her memory. Some of the connections seem obvious, but of course things are never quite that simple. Trust me, there will be something to surprise.
The problem is that by now, at least for Atkinson followers, the thrill of that surprise is probably gone. You expect it. You know it’s going to happen, so when it comes, it doesn’t have the same kind of shock value it had the first time. It’s not that you’ve figured out how things are related. You may have sorted out some of the relationships, but even knowing they were all going to come together, you would have had trouble with some of them. It is simply that knowing the ship and the iceberg are going to meet one more time is not quite as exciting as it was the first time, the first two times, or even the first three times.
This is not to say that there aren’t other qualities to admire. Atkinson creates multi-dimensional characters rooted firmly in reality. She is interested in human relationships beyond those integral to the plot. She carefully evokes a sense of place. She has a sense of humor, and she manages to move the narrative along with alacrity. Reading her books is always a pleasure. It is simply that the best reading of one of Atkinson’s Brodie novels is the first one. The others are fine, but there is nothing like the first time.