Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2005
Little Brown & Company/Time Warner Books
US Hardcover First
310 Pages; $23.95
Publication Date: November, 2004
Date Reviewed: January 10, 2005
Does the past augur the present, or do the serendipitous events of the present trump the ill-fated incidents of the past? In 'Case Histories', crimes and criminals, set apart in place and set decades in the past, intersect, entangle and inform the present. 'Case Histories' is a complex, sophisticated and highly literary detective story that begins with disparate deaths and ends with convoluted lives. It is matter of fact in relating grisly crimes, while slyly and cynically witty in relating the stories of the survivors. 'Case Histories' seeps under your skin and sinks into your soul.
Private Investigator Jackson Brodie is hired to investigate three unsolved crimes from past decades. Case One involves the 30-year old nighttime disappearance of tiny Olivia Land, youngest of four Land sisters, while innocently sleeping in a backyard tent. Case Two focuses on eighteen-year-old Laura Wyre, who is brutally stabbed while working in her father's law office by an unknown man distinguished only by his yellow golf sweater. Case Three concerns Michelle, accused and convicted of brutally axing her husband in a postnatal rage. As Brodie pursues each case, startling and complex connections emerge, and the truths uncovered ultimately come to matter less than their pursuit.
Atkinson is a stylish writer of rich imagination and perceptive characterization. She creates a narrative full of unique characters, each eccentric and odd, but each recognizable and embraceable by the reader. While anchored three disparate crimes, 'Case Histories' is, in fact, a novel about the survivors and the impact of past loss on those who live on. The three living Land sisters, Sylvia the nun, lusty Juliette and lackluster Amelia; Laura's grossly obese father Theo; Michelle's sister and new mother-in-law. These characters and all the people who enter and share their lives drive the book's action and provide its depth. Shunning the conventions of the classic detective novel, Atkinson casts the protagonist, PI Brodie, as an atypical investigator, less an unraveler of clues than a crucial narrative guide. Brodie is part detective and part participant in the thematic truths to be told, yet another survivor with a story of his own.
Atkinson's characters are uniquely observed in prose that alternates between literary stream-of-consciousness, interior monologues and crisp, intelligent dialogue. She is a witty and perceptive chronicler of her character's innermost thoughts, inserting her cynical humor in parenthetical asides that both shock and soften the reader's reality. Atkinson writes an odd and captivating mixture of the expected and the surprising, the completely ordinary offset by the wholly outlandish, the common minutia of wounded lives spiced with offbeat details of momentous importance. She pairs soul-baring and often heart breaking constructs of the human psyche with understated expositional zingers. In a novel that is well controlled and well paced, Atkinson keeps all her characters motivationally anchored and enjoyably humorous, keeps the surprises coming and keeps the sum of these parts just on the right side of surreal.
'Case Histories' is a vital and engaging spin on the typical detective mystery. With primary characters of unique flavor, and the wide swath of people in their lives, 'Case Histories' tells stories of family abuse and familial love that begin with staggering loss and end with hopeful change. Her characters don't so much heal themselves as patch themselves together and go on. While the quest for answers may permit closure, it is the untidy business of day-to-day life that propels redemption, often in wholly unexpected ways. And we, as readers, are raptly involved in watching this unfold.