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case histories

17 may 2012

Someone recommended I read Kate Atkinson's crime novels, so being a little less attentive than I'd like to admit, I ran out and read one by Ian Rankin. My excuse is that he definitely has a lot of the same letters in his name as Kate Atkinson. Anyway, once I had been reminded of what I was actually looking for, I procured Atkinson's Case Histories and spent a baffled, perversely amused couple of days charging through it. This novel is one weird twist on the private-eye genre.

The most unusual characteristic of Case Histories is the overlapping, disjunctive pattern of its narrative. Like many Krimis, Case Histories is told from multiple perspectives, in short chapters that don't follow a linear time sequence. That much is almost standard anymore. But it's also full of cliffhangers, ellipses, and revisions that rearrange the threads and trajectories of previous chapters. You expect one character not to see what another sees. In Case Histories, the characters frequently lose track of what they themselves have seen. Whole chapters seem to be on fast-forward, or to have lost fragments in the editing, or to be perceived as in a glass, darkly.

As a result, just when you thought that a detective novel couldn't do anything new to keep you guessing, you spend much of Case Histories scratching your head and turning back to see if something really happened, or really mattered. Our hero, PI Jackson Brodie, leads the dull life that many fictional PIs complain of before they hit on a big job. He's watching a flight attendant for signs of adultery when he is suddenly asked to solve a 10-year-old murder and a 34-year-old abduction . . . not to mention a 25-year missing adopted child, presumably not criminally abducted but just as vanished as the earlier girl.

One expects these cases to be pulled together in a nexus of causality, but they're not. They weave in and out of one another because Brodie is interested in all three (and has a resonant "case history" of his own to deal with too). They're all centered on Cambridge, and they all were invented by Kate Atkinson, who pulls the strings beautifully. But the solutions to the various mysteries are oblique and incommensurate. And the windup to Brodie's personal problems comes out of left field, or deep fine leg or wherever such things come from in England.

Brodie is profane, and depressed, and full of antisocial appetites, and much put-upon. In that he is a member of the midlife-crisis fictional PI club, but he's an attractive, blunt bloke who seems not to deserve the dog's abuse that the world piles on him. We get the sense that people envy Brodie. He gets beaten up a lot, like Ross Macdonald's Archer or Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, but he never seems to provoke the beatings with a sharp tongue; if anything, he's a bit too polite for his own good, and people tend to sucker-punch him just for thinking bad things about them. That too is unusual, and one doesn't say "unusual" very often about too many private-eye stories.

Atkinson, Kate. Case Histories. 2004. New York: Little, Brown [Hachette], 2008.