SinC25 #2 – Kate Atkinson

As my second woman crime fiction writer to highlight for the Sisters in Crime Book Bloggers’ Challenge I thought I would  say a word about Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, with a particular focus on the fourth title in the series, Started Early, Took My Dog. These are probably not for everyone; if you insist on things like cause and effect or abhor coincidences, you may find these books insufferable. But her writing style, her humor, and her delightful inventiveness coupled with deep tenderness for hapless human beings have completely won me over.In this book, Jackson Brodie is tracing the birth parents of a New Zealand woman and acquires a small dog by accident, An ex-cop has taken a small child away from a drug addict and decides, against the odds, logic, and the law, to become her mother, an elderly actress is losing her memory – and all of it is connected to a brutal crime that the ex-cop responded to when she was a newly minted police officer.

Here’s what I wrote in my reading log after finishing Started Early, Took My Dog:

Wow, amazing. As always, Atkinson spins a story from a series of lives intersecting, connections as thin and delicate as a spider’s web, everything from Jackson Brodie’s investigation finding a New Zealand woman’s birth parents to an ex-copper who impulsively acquires a small child, to an aging actress whose memory has turned into gauzy lace, all of it woven together in a pattern made of coincidence and connections. More complex in structure than previous books in the series, some of the scenes are from the 1970s, when a crime was hushed up, having implications in the present. Darker than the others, too, but just brilliant, the kind of novel that makes you want to turn back and read it all over again.

If you want to know more about the story – which is brilliant, but hard to describe – I recapped it in a review for Mystery Scene Magazine. Though I’m not typically bothered reading series out of order, this is one that really is best read from first onward:

  • Case Histories (2004)
  • One Good Turn (2006)
  • When Will There Be Good News (2008)
  • Started Early, Took My Dog (2010)

But that won’t be a hardship, as they are all quite wonderful – provided you’re willing to accept a universe in which coincidence rules. Normally, I wouldn’t care for this strategy, but … she pulls it off. I found an earlier attempt in my reading log to explain to myself why she works so well for me.

She’s not writing crime fiction, and she’s not mocking it or transcending anything. She’s reacting, though (I think) to what crime fiction does, which is take a group of people and a terrible thing (a murder, usually), explore how those people react to the terrible thing, the reason for which or the resolution of which is unknown, then pull it all together into a solution – both of the crime and of the sense that crimes or other terrible things (like sudden death or betrayal or deviant behavior or jealousy or greed) have the potential to challenge the ways we organize our belief (in God, in the police, in the basic goodness of most people in a crisis, in our own untested morality). That’s one of the reasons mysteries are satisfying. They give us dramatic discord and they involve us in resolution, and they do it entertainingly, whether dark or light, take your pick.

It seems to me that Atkinson is taking all the incident and drama we expect in a mystery, but instead of logic and those social organizations that are there to protect us driving the story line, coincidence is what makes things go forward. And it’s not just randomness; Its as if randomness has a strange quality that charges all the particles in the book so they’ll be drawn together.

What she’s doing is giving us the ripping good story we crave, but giving a completely different reason for how the story will move along. Where in other mysteries there would be reasons for every connection that’s made (even if the reasons were a strain, and not reasonable, really, there’d be reasons) here there are no reasons. Just loads of points of connection. As if to say: What if that connectedness and meaning we crave were there, but not as usual? What if they were connected in some other way, an almost opposite way to reason?

I find these such joyful books – and I feel the same uplift as when a really good crime fiction writer is in a really generous mood and lets things click satisfyingly into place, though it might be more realistic or more modern to let them stay broken. These books wouldn’t work at all if a) she were not as good a writer as she is – she’s funny and touching and wise and just plain good – and b) she were smirking at her cleverness; look, I’m taking a genre and bending it and aren’t I doing something amazing? She doesn’t smirk at all, at the genre or the reader or the characters.

It’s hard to come up with similar authors – Atkinson’s style is unusual – but here are some writers whose lovely use of words takes center stage and sometimes makes logic go stand in the corner.

  • Frances Fyfield (whose style is quite lovely, her stories a bit elliptical)
  • Jennifer McMahon (who writes quite lyrically about the world from a child’s perspective)
  • Cornelia Read (who writes the kind of book I don’t like, except I do because her prose is so astonishingly fine)

Feel free to join in to the challenge – at the easy, moderate, or expert level. I’ll be putting together another round up of challenge posts in a few days.

 

5 Responses to SinC25 #2 – Kate Atkinson

  1. I love the way you put your comment about Cornelia Read “who writes the kind of book I don’t like, except I do”. I have a couple of authors in that category. I’ve not heard of her so will check her out.

    I did enjoy the one Atkinson book I read (WWTBGN) but the coincidence factor did my head in a bit…but the last para of your reading log puts it into a nice perspective. Thanks

    • Barbara says:

      When I read Case Histories, I remember hesitating, thinking “will I do this? Can I really put up with this coincidence thing? Because it’s all over the place.” And I decided to live with it, And then it grew on me, and now it seems like being able to see the universe from a very different, yet somehow coherent, perspective.

  2. True, she is not for everyone. I have read the first three, and for some reason I loved the first and the third, but in the second there was an important incident in the beginning which just annoyed me all the way through the book. And in When Will there be Good News I hope I will never forget the happy, little baby that is compared to a starfish.

    • Barbara says:

      Very interesting, Dorte – I had a very similar experience. I didn’t hate the second book by any means, but after the first it was a disappointment. The third was so much more (with the baby! and the mystery in the past) – and I adore the fourth.

  3. kathy d. says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here, pardon my comparison.
    Atkinson’s books are not typical mysteries, definitely not thrillers. Her writing is excellent. Her prose is delicious.
    However, what I think is unique is not only her prose, but her character development. She conveys quite a deep understanding of human beings, their behavior, their motives; she gets and is conveying part of the human condition.
    The mystery aspect is the plot device, the method for doing this, the pull into the story. But her books have so much more than a standard mystery; and as for Fred Vargas, she follows no formula, no prior writers. Her writing is unique. That’s the word I think of … unique.
    I couldn’t wait to read about the characters, not so much for the mystery but to know them, what they were thinking and doing.
    Definitely a favorite writer of mine, and I liked “Walked my Dog,” more than others.

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