Onyx reviews: Case Histories
by Kate Atkinson
Some claim that the chasm between literary and genre fiction cannot be
spanned. In the rare instances when the gap is crossed, mystery is one the most
successful genres, perhaps because at the heart of most mysteries lies an
exploration of the human condition. Whodunit makes way for whydunit. The
literary mystery is less about solving the puzzle than understanding the people
British author Kate Atkinson approaches the gap from the literary side in Case
Histories, her fourth novel. Her protagonist, Jackson Brodie, is a former
Cambridge police inspector who is now a private investigator. Little good can be
said for his life. His wife left him for a man he despises, and he struggles to
stay connected with his daughter. He accepts pointless cases-an old woman who
asks him to keep track of her lost cats, for example-and dreams of retiring in
Suddenly he finds himself involved with a trio of new investigations, all
arising from cold cases. He isn't optimistic about resolving any of them, but he
gamely sleuths away while becoming entangled in the personal lives of his
The three cases are laid out in parallel opening chapters, before Jackson is
introduced. Readers would do well to remember that memories are sometimes hazy,
details are repressed, and not everything is as it seems.
- Two sisters discover something among their deceased father's belongings
that they haven't seen since the night in 1970 when their younger sister
vanished while camping in their back yard.
- An overprotective father arranged a job for his daughter at his law firm
only to realize that he placed her directly in harm's way; she was murdered
during her first day at work. A decade later, he makes a final effort to
understand what happened that day before retiring the shrine he maintains to the
- The sister of a woman imprisoned for murdering her husband hires Jackson
to track down her niece, who was only a baby on the day of the murder.
A fourth case history is revealed over the course of the novel. A murder that
occurred when Jackson Brodie was a boy probably influenced the course of his
Readers will probably come to think that Jackson's investigations aren't leading
anywhere, but he starts to unravel clues and turn up old witnesses. The pieces
start to fall into place. Not everyone will pay for their crimes, but the truth
comes out, which sometimes is enough.
Another author might have wrestled the three disparate stories into a single,
interrelated crime, but the only relation between the murders is geographical.
Cambridge is small enough that people's lives overlap as a matter of course.
Atkinson's writing is light, witty, beautifully descriptive, and her characters
are vividly tormented, very real people.
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