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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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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