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Kate Atkinson: Case Histories

Jackson Brodie has managed to move up the ranks in the army (to warrant officer) and in the police force (to inspector) but now he is a private investigator, his career change having been precipitated when his wife left him for a university lecturer. Watching Nicola Spencer to see if she is having an affair is not very exciting, particularly as she is a flight attendant and travels frequently but her husband’s resources do not stretch to funding Jackson to travel with her, so he cannot really tell whether she is having an affair. But then three cold cases all come to him and change his life, though not necessarily for the better. We have been introduced to all three at the beginning of the novel.

The first case – like all of them, set in Cambridge – concerns the family of a mathematics lecturer. Victor is, at least, in his own view, a mathematical genius. At the age of thirty-six, he married the eighteen-year old Rosemary and she had five girls in a row. Victor’s involvement, after procreation, was minimal. All his non-working hours were spent in his study. There were three older girls – Julia, Amelia and Sylvia. Then there was an afterthought, Olivia, now three years old. Rosemary is again pregnant (we later learn that she will give birth to another girl). One night she allows Olivia to spend the night in a tent in the garden with Amelia. Next morning, when Amelia awakes, Olivia is not to be seen. She is never seen again, either dead or alive. Thirty-four years later, Victor dies and Julia and Amelia, checking the house, find some evidence which makes them call Jackson to investigate her disappearance. Julia is a not very successful actress, single but with lots of lovers. Amelia is a teacher but has had sex only once in her life, with a (married) colleague. Sylvia is a cloistered nun. The youngest, Annabelle, died as a baby and her mother soon after. Jackson knows the house as one of his frequent clients is their next-door neighbour, Binky Rain, who frequently calls on him to investigate the theft or loss of her cats (and never pays him).

The second case concerns Laura Wyse. Her father, Theo, is an overweight solicitor. He has brought up his two daughters, Jenny and Laura, after his wife died when they were young. He loves them both but dotes on Laura. One summer she is going to work in his office. He is unable to be there her first day as he has to go to Peterborough. When he returns he finds that a madman had entered the building stabbed (but not fatally) one of the partners but killed Laura. Theo will mourn her for the rest of his life and will become obsessed with finding the killer, who is never identified, despite several witnesses and a detailed investigation by the police. After ten years of grief and lack of success, he calls in Jackson.

The third case involves an axe murder. Michelle is married to Keith (she got pregnant and they decided to marry). She is bitter as she wanted to go to university and now cannot. Above all, she is tired of Tanya, her screaming child, and tired of boring Keith. One day, she loses her cool and kills him with an axe. Her fifteen-year old sister, Shirley, finds her and calls the police. She has no defence and goes to prison. She asks Shirley to look after Tanya but Shirley is too young and Tanya is taken by Keith’s parents, till she runs away, aged fifteen, and cannot be found. Shirley wants Tanya found.

Jackson is generally pragmatic but things do tend to have a habit of going wrong for him. He is not helped by his ex-wife, who is still determined to make his life miserable. Nor is he helped by the fact that someone – he does not who or why – seems to be trying to kill him. His rather aggressive secretary not to mention his demanding clients all add to his woes. Only his former police colleagues and his eight-year old daughter ease his life somewhat, as well as his love of contemporary female country music. Atkinson, of course, gives us all sorts of false clues. Is Olivia still alive, living under another identity or was she murdered and, if so, by whom? Where is Tanya? And who killed Laura and why? Jackson assiduously tracks down these cases, stumbling his way to at least some success but ends up rather more successful than he had any right to expect. And, of course, there are twists. As always, Atkinson writes in her usual quirky manner, with all of her characters having their own not always endearing peculiarities, and she tells her story with lots of wit and lots of false leads. But she has a serious edge to her, the sympathy with those ordinary people who are sometimes at a loss and don’t always find their way. Helping at least some of them find their way is Atkinson’s method of helping.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Doubleday