Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Case Histories (2005) and One Good Turn (2007) (reviewed November 2007)

In retrospect, I would only give these three stars.

Kate Atkinson, Case Histories (2005) and One Good Turn (2007) [****]. These British mysteries are the first two in a series featuring Jackson Brodie, a private detective whose wife has recently left him and who misses his ten year old daughter a whole lot. Brodie has an impressively tough-guy resume (military, cop, private eye, chain smoker who’s a little obsessed with his car); yet he is also endearingly tender and even prudish: he listens to Linda Ronstadt, is overprotective of his daughter, and has romantic notions about retiring to the French countryside. I read these mysteries in reverse order, by accident, so the earlier one is most fresh in my mind. It involves three distinct cold cases that fall into Brodie’s lap and which, through a series of coincidences, become all wrapped up with each other. (The device of multiple perspectives that all come together in the life and work of Brodie is also employed in One Good Turn.) In the first story line, a three year old youngest and most beloved daughter in a terribly dysfunctional family goes missing, never to be found. Years later, two of her grown sisters come home to bury their cold fish of a father, and find evidence that he might have been involved in the sister’s disappearance. They hire Brodie to look into it. In the second case, a young woman who had great ambitions but now feels trapped as a wife and mother snaps and kills her husband when he accidentally wakes the baby. Years later, her younger sister hires Brodie to find the baby, now a young woman, who disappeared as a troubled teen run-away. In the final case, a profoundly grief-stricken father hires Brodie to look into the seemingly random, brutal murder ten years prior of his beloved eighteen-year-old daughter, with which he has been obsessed ever since. These stories converge with each other and with Brodie’s own sad history in a series of coincidences that were strained and incredible, and which annoyed me. But I’m always annoyed by the inevitable logical imperfections of mystery and detective fiction, yet I’m an insatiable reader of the genre, and Kate Atkins will now be on my list of British writers, right between P.D. James (who, alas, is fading in her ninth decade) and Elizabeth George (whose health and long life I pray for on a regular basis), whose next work I wait for with bated breath. Because there is so much to love: the unusually well-drawn and sympathetic characters; the thoughtful treatment of difficult themes such as grief, dysfunctional families, and their aftermath; the spot-on, often very humorous voice; and of course, a page-turner of a plot, which is pretty satisfying despite its problems.

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