Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (2004)

Book #1 of the Jackson Brodie Mysteries series

This book, by award-winning novelist Kate Atkinson, is one of the most unusual murder mystery stories I have ever read.  In it, Jackson Brodie, a former cop turned private investigator in Cambridge, England is tasked with solving three unsolved — and unconnected — cold cases: a thirty-four year old missing child case; the ten-year old unsolved murder of a teenager; and a twenty-five year old case (which only brushes Jackson Brodie’s life and which we the reader learn much more about than he does) involving a woman who murdered her husband.

From its expansive opening presentation of the crimes to its bizarre final chapters, the book seems to defy its genre entirely although it is most definitely a murder mystery novel. The most immediately notable difference from other mysteries is the fact that each of the crimes is described for the reader in its own stand-alone chapter at the beginning of the book. These “case histories” are not cold police files but rather touching and very human stories about the victims and the circumstances surrounding the crimes. A second notable deviation from the standard are the multiple narrators — both of large and small involvement in the main story — and a narrative style that at times feels almost stream-of-consciousness, even dream-like.

Wonderfully well-written and composed with a circular, atemporal style (slightly similar to the style that made her best selling novel Life After Life so compelling), the story lopes around and around itself and its characters in an almost languid way. This is at odds with the breakneck pace and methodical order of most other murder mysteries; it is almost as if Brodie is not so much solving these mysteries as he is simply excavating them from where they have been hiding, often in plain sight. In fact, Brodie himself is a passive character who — without any real evidence of work — has clues revealed to him, which he follows up on without any real sense of urgency. Yet somehow, the story moves along and the unsolved cases begin to have light shone upon them, and amazingly, all three cases are resolved almost as if by complete accident.

For lovers of the genre, I strongly suggest this novel. I found that I could not put it down once I began and finished in one, gloriously lazy Saturday afternoon. Such an utterly satisfying way to spend a winter day.

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