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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 involved.

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 France.

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 clients.

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 investigation.
  • 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 professional life.

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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