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by Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown, November 2004
320 pages
ISBN: 0316740403

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Jackson Brodie, ex-cop and current private investigator, has been asked to look into several cold cases -- the disappearance of a little girl, the fate of an ax murderer's baby, and the unsolved workplace stabbing of a young woman.

The description of CASE HISTORIES may sound like Dashell Hammett, but the writing style owes more to James Joyce. One of those internal, psychological novels, what happens is never quite as important as how people feel about it. Therefore most of the story is told in the past tense, in long, digressive passages of nouns and adjectives. Take, for example, this sentence and a half from the second case:

"David Holroyd was standing in front of the fireplace, telling one of the junior partners about the 'bloody fantastic' holiday he'd just returned from when the stranger rushed into the room and from somewhere, probably from beneath the yellow golfing sweater he was wearing, but no one was sure, pulled out a bowie knife and sliced through the dark worsted of David Holroyd's Austen Reed suit, the white poplin of his Charles Tyrwhitt shirt, the tropical tan on the skin of his left arm and, finally, the artery in the arm. And Laura, who liked apricot yoghurt and drank tea but not coffee and who had size 6 feet and who loved horses, who preferred plain chocolate to milk chocolate and had spent five years learning classical guitar but never played anymore and who was still sad that their pet dog, Poppy had been run over the previous summer, Laura who was Theo's child and his best friend, dropped the land registry form and ran into the boardroom after the man -- perhaps because she had a Red Cross certificate or because she had done a self-defense course at fifth-form college, or perhaps it was from simple curiosity or instinct, it was impossible to know what she was thinking as she ran into the boardroom where the man, this complete stranger, had spun on the balls of his feet with the agility and grace of a dancer, his hand still moving in the same arc . . ."

I will confess that I was expecting a hardboiled book, but once I relaxed into the flow of the prose I found that I could enjoy it for what it was. However I could not enjoy the hasty way the novel wraps up. The three cases are theoretically linked, but only in the most shallow and contrived way, with a clumsy and badly explained series of attacks on Jackson slapped sloppily on top. The lyrical, elliptical prose and retroactive story telling almost (but not quite) hide the fact that most of these cases went unsolved because of poor police procedure and are only resolved now by author ex-machina. But nothing can hide the way the narrative constantly leads up to major revelations, only to drop that story line for pages, until the clue can be safely discussed in the past tense.

If you want a slow, leisurely, thoughtful read, you might enjoy CASE HISTORIES. If you want an accurate depiction of an investigation and a fighting chance of solving the mystery yourself, look elsewhere.

Reviewed by Linnea Dodson, October 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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