Notwithstanding my positive reaction to Transcription, I wasn’t certain I would necessarily be the perfect audience for Kate Atkinson’s writing; was that WWII-era spy novel an aberration that happened to push my buttons, or a gateway drug to Atkinson’s larger body of work? As it turns out, it may be the latter, if her wonderful novel Case Histories (2004) is any indication. The first book featuring Atkinson’s private detective Jackson Brodie, Case Histories is something of a mosaic mystery that introduces — in masterful fashion — a handful of complex mystery dramas, and then thrusts her likeable protagonist into the midst of them. Brodie, who both embodies certain PI cliches and subverts them, becomes entangled in multiple cases. First, there is the mysterious, long-ago disappearance of the favored sister in a dysfunctional family; then there’s the ghastly, unsolved murder of a lawyer’s beloved daughter; and finally, there’s a missing persons case involving a notorious ax-murdering woman who pleaded insanity, served her time, got out, and promptly vanished. Brodie — former cop, former husband, currently struggling divorced father — finds himself pursuing all three cases simultaneous, a busy caseload that ends up entwining him in the complex family lives of his clients.
Case Histories is a deftly orchestrated novel characterized by Atkinson’s playful use of language, engrossing character work, and effortless juggling of multiple threads, timelines, and plot elements. It is, first and foremost, a vastly entertaining sprawl of intriguing questions gradually revealed, blending wry humor with dark subtext and insightful commentary. Brodie is a fun central viewpoint, and Atkinson surrounds him with plenty of neurotic, troubled people in need of his aid. The various stories are leveraged in service to subtle, precise social critique surrounding gender roles, mental health, societal judgement, and more. There is so much going on here, done so well, that it’s difficult to do its wonders justice in a review; suffice it to say, it is a riveting, lighting-fast read that should please mystery readers to no end.