Kate Atkinson’s latest novel is the fourth in her series about Jackson Brodie, the ex-soldier, ex-police officer and ex-husband who now works in a desultory way as a private investigator.
Kate Atkinson’s latest novel is the fourth in her series about Jackson Brodie, the ex-soldier, ex-police officer and ex-husband who now works in a desultory way as a private investigator. Like its predecessors, Started Early, Took My Dog takes place in an exhilarating and occasionally infuriating version of modern Britain that reads as if designed by a theoretical physicist with a sense of humour.
The novel is equipped with two epigraphs. The first is the rhyme beginning ‘For want of a nail the shoe was lost’, which sums up one of the book’s themes. The second is a chilling remark made by the Yorkshire Ripper, an unseen presence in the story: ‘I was just cleaning up the place a bit.’
Brodie is in Leeds, partly to look for the birth-mother of a New Zealand woman. He is also on his way to find Fountains Abbey. A man is beating a border terrier in a park. Brodie terrorises the man and acquires the dog. Tracy Waterhouse, a retired police superintendent, comes across a prostitute mistreating a little girl, perhaps her daughter, in a shopping centre. Tracey, who happens to have a handbag crammed with cash destined for her Polish builder, buys the child on impulse and in doing so falls in love with motherhood. In the same shopping centre, at the same time, an elderly actress on the verge of dementia loses her purse.
As for the New Zealander’s mother, it becomes clear from an early stage that she was a prostitute murdered in 1975; the victim’s body lay undiscovered for two weeks; with her, eking out a precarious existence, was her young child. Tracy, then a raw recruit, was one of the officers who discovered the body. The murderer was never found. Several of Tracy’s former colleagues had, and still have, pressing reasons to suppress any serious investigation. To confuse matters further, another private eye is pursuing the case. His name is Brodie Jackson.
Jackson Brodie’s own past is never very far away. Kate Atkinson is obliged to fill in the gaps for the benefit of readers who are not already familiar with the series. Perhaps this is to some extent deliberate, for the narrative is full of arch echoes, bewildering partial symmetries and near parallels; it features lurching shifts in time and sideways synchronicities. It’s difficult to distinguish between some of the characters — particularly the police officers — because there are so many of them. Many questions are left unanswered at the end. Who, for example, is Tracy’s stolen child, and what is the significance of her pink backpack with its totemic collection of objects? The plot is a tangle of loose ends.
This is not the best of the Brodie novels; Case Histories and When Will There Be Good News work better in terms of their narrative. But don’t let that put you off. For all its infuriating quirks, Started Early, Took My Dog is readable, compassionate and very funny. It’s too good to miss.
Andrew Taylor’s latest novel is The Anatomy of Ghosts (Michael Joseph)