Case Histories by Kate Atkinson


I spotted this 2004 book by a favorite British author of mine at Jen and Brooke's house. As you might guess from the title, it is a mystery, a category that doesn't do it justice. I suspect it belonged to Brooke ("I like fiction that begins with a murder and ends with an arrest.") It does begin with three deaths, described in the first three chapters as Case History No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 that occurred respectively in 1970, 1994, and 1979. 

Atkinson then introduces our hero, former policeman, now private detective Jackson Brodie who has some of the elements required in this character type. He is divorced, mad about it, and loves his young daughter. He tears from one dangerous encounter to the next, is bashed, and his life is threatened more than once. Otherwise, he and this book are unlike other detective novels. The connections among the three murders exist and it takes some time before the bits of the stories Atkinson tells fall into place.

But it is the family members who survive those deaths that she focuses on, and what an odd assortment of humanity they are. There are the sisters who hired Jackson to solve the mystery of their sister's childhood death decades before:  they both develop crushes on Jackson. There's the extremely overweight man still mourning the death of his 20-year-old perfect daughter ten years before. And there's Binky Rain who is convinced someone is stealing her cats. 

Her complaint, the reason she had originally engaged Jackson's services, was that someone was stealing her cats. Jackson couldn't work out whether cats really did go missing or whether she just thought they went missing. She had this thing about black cats in particular. "Someone's taking them," she said in her clipped little voice, her accent as anachronistic as everything else about her, a remnant, a leftover from another time, another place, long turned into history….

Binky Rain had never paid Jackson in the two years he had known her, but he supposed this was fair as for his part, he had never found a single missing cat in those two years. He saw his visits to her more as a social service:  no one else ever visited the poor old cow and Jackson had a tolerance for her idiosyncrasies that surprised even himself. She was an old Nazi boot but you had to admire her spirit.

Along with the idiosyncratic characters are the truly evil ones and enough unpleasantness to make me uneasy. I considered just skipping to the end, but the plot was too complicated for that to work, so I had to keep reading. 

Kate Atkinson, Case Histories, Little, Brown and Company, 2004, 310 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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