Case Histories, Kate Atkinson

From a rocky start – three dark mysteries laid out w/o connection or relief – Case Histories accelerates steadily, to wrap the reader in a web of interconnections and references, some real and substantial, some only coincidental. Its cast of characters is a bit broad to follow at times; still it illustrates the breadth of human experience (at least a white, British slice of it).

Atkinson’s sympathies are clearly with the misfits, though she’s wise enough to know that most are at least partly responsible for their fates. She’s also ethical enough to spend far more time with the intriguing victims than the hateful villains, relegating the latter to brief glimpses sufficient to drive the plot but never the bus.

Central figure Jackson Brodie owes a lot to Sam Spade, though he’s a bit more enlightened, with a black army-buddy and an eight-year-old daughter in tow. He’s also British, which surrounds him with an entrenched class structure, old money and inherited poverty, and a more textured context than San Francisco can provide.  Thanks to her diverse characters and focus on how family & relationships shape and drive them, Atkinson has crafted far more than an homage-de-Hammett; Case Histories is a capable novel which creates its own world as a mirror to the real one, using the murder mystery to raise the stakes, not as an end in itself.

Structurally, Atkinson goes way beyond Hammett’s ebony falcon, with multiple story lines that touch and reflect-upon one another, sometimes truly entangled – as when Theo befriends, and is saved by, young Lily-Rose – other times merely bumping in the (existential) night, as when Jackson nearly runs off the road to avoid a silver Mercedes later revealed to have been driven by none other than Caroline (who is really…..).

And finally, almost as coda, Atkinson reveals the real stories beneath the pat crimes. In this view, villainy and heroism are rarely as simple as the record seems to say. Actions may have consequences, but they also have origins, and finding out that a prime suspect didn’t commit the crime for which we’ve been led to blame him, does not in any way imply that he is blameless.

A gem to remember and recommend. Wow.

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