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Onyx reviews: Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

It seems like an innocent enough assignment. Jackson Brodie (who was first introduced in Case Histories) is contacted by a woman living in New Zealand who was born in Leeds before being adopted in 1975. She wants him to see what he can find out about her birth family. Brodie, a former police officer and semi-retired private detective, has resources and skills that can be brought to bear on the problem.

Little does he know the tangled web of secrets his investigation threatens to unveil. The lack of cooperation he receives from social services (one worker absconds rather than talk to him) and the empty files he discovers in the official records are the first signs that something is amiss. The book's prolog will have readers thinking they know the truth, but Atkinson's stories are never quite that simple.

Stolen children (and animals) are a recurring theme in Started Early, Took My Dog (the title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem). Tracy Waterhouse, a solidly built, gruff former cop who now supervises security at a shopping mall in Leeds sees a young girl being abused and neglected by a drug-addled prostitute that she knows from her days on the job, a woman whose other children have been removed by protective services. In the spur of the moment, she decides to free the girl from her harsh upbringing by buying her from the woman, who quickly agrees to the terms but tries to tell Tracy something. However, the end of the sentence that begins "But she's not..." are forever lost.  

In one of Atkinson's trademark coincidences ("a coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen," one of her characters says), several other people are present in the mall that day whose paths will cross again in the future, for no apparent reason other than that they do. These include Brodie, who will have cause to look for Tracy and actually find her without realizing it, and an aging actress named Tilly, who has incipient dementia and a mild case of kleptomania, and will accidentally intervene at a fateful point in the story.

Four-year-old Courtney is a cutie who doesn't seem to care that she's been abducted so long as she's fed. She conveys her likes and dislikes with Nero-like thumbs up/down gestures, and entertains herself by making stars with her hands and waving around her fairy wand. She quickly breaks through all of Tracy's carefully constructed defenses, established after years of dealing with dead and missing people, including too many children. Tracy soon realizes, though, that this spontaneous and ill-considered decision has left her open to blackmail and the sorts of questions from friends and former colleagues for which she has no answers. She also starts seeing mysterious cars following her, and has thugs asking awkward questions. She needs to reinvent herself and disappear from her past life. 

Lurking behind the present action are the events of thirty years earlier, when Tracy was just getting started as a WPC. Her recollection of that time in her career bring to mind the male-dominated police force of the 1970s depicted in Life on Mars, a show that is referenced in the text, along with other British television mainstays such as Doctor Who and Hyacinth Bucket. One her first callouts was to a murder scene where the body had been undiscovered for three weeks. The victim's young child is found fending for itself in these horrid conditions. Decisions are made that evening that will affect the lives of many people. The murder itself is never solved, though it is attributed to a chain of killings by a serial killer known as the Yorkshire Ripper. 

While looking for information for his remote client, Brodie stumbles across the British countryside, haphazardly following clues in a way that would make Dirk Gently proud. He's been meandering through his life ever since his older sister was murdered when he was a boy—maybe even by the selfsame Ripper. More recently, he was swindled out of his life savings by his second wife, he pines for another ex and he's trying to figure out his teenage daughter.

While on a mission to visit tea rooms and abbeys, he steals a dog that is being abused—operating under the same somewhat misguided ethics that compelled Tracy to rescue Courtney. The dog, named the Ambassador despite its diminuitive stature, becomes his best friend, and he goes to great lengths to make sure that it is treated well, including smuggling it into places where animals aren't allowed.

At many steps along his haphazard journey he discovers that small details have major impacts on peoples' lives, far beyond their measure. "For want of a nail" is his mantra. By the strangest of coincidences, another man named Jackson is following a similar course. Readers of Atkinson's sort-of crime novels must accept that happenstance are part of the everyday lives of her characters. There's no reason why Brodie, Tilly and Tracy should all have been in the mall at the same time, nor any plausible explanation for a scene later in the novel where Brodie and Tracy encounter each other after Tracy is stranded when her car strikes a deer.

Tilly is one of the novel's most entertaining and intriguing characters, introduced in a scene of disorientation at the mall. She argues with an obdurate teller over whether she paid with a £20 note or a tenner. Readers will sympathize with her at first, until the depth of her confusion betrays her condition. She has just been cast for a bit part on a TV crime show that she frequently mistakes for real life, and vice versa. She also loses track of  the time of day, annoying her roommate by cooking suppers in the middle of the night. She has a much better grasp on the past than she does on the things transpiring around her at the moment.

Everything collides at the end and most things get worked out in surprising ways, but woven carefully into the tapestry of the novel are subtle details (a birthmark shaped like Africa, for example) whose significance never rise all the way to the surface, left instead for the reader to contemplate once the final page is done. 

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