My first introduction to Kate Atkinson’s work was Life After Life, which I read in 2013 and loved. I’ve been wanting to read more of her books and knowing that a lot of people speak very highly of her Jackson Brodie novels, I decided to start with the first one in the series, Case Histories.
In Case Histories, private detective Jackson Brodie is investigating three old cases that have remained unresolved for years:
Case History No. 1 – During the summer heatwave of 1970, three-year-old Olivia Land is sleeping in a tent in the garden with her older sister, Amelia. When Amelia wakes up, she finds that Olivia has disappeared without trace.
Case History No. 2 – In 1994, eighteen-year-old Laura Wyre is murdered on her first day working in her father’s office. Her killer has still not been found and no motive for the attack has ever been discovered.
Case History No. 3 – In 1979, Michelle Fletcher is living on an isolated farm with her new husband and baby daughter. Depressed, lonely and finding it hard to cope, an argument with her husband ends in a brutal murder.
The connection between these three stories is Jackson Brodie, who is contacted by family members hoping to have the cases reopened or looked at again. Amelia and Julia Land want to find out what happened to their little sister, Olivia, and whether she could still be alive; Laura’s father, Theo, wants to know who killed his beloved daughter and why; and Shirley Morrison is searching for her sister Michelle’s daughter, with whom she lost contact after the incident which tore their family apart. But Jackson has problems of his own and as he begins to investigate these three very different crimes, he is reminded of a tragedy in his own past and another ‘lost girl’ who disappeared from his life decades earlier.
I loved Case Histories. I know describing a book as unputdownable is a cliché, but it was true in this case – it really is the sort of book where once you start reading, you don’t want to stop until you reach the end. It’s a crime novel I would recommend even to readers who are not really interested in crime fiction because, while the three mysteries are quite interesting, the real strength of the book is in the characterisation. The story is not so much about the crimes themselves as about the effect they had on the people involved and how they have tried (and often failed) to move on from what has happened.
I liked Jackson and am looking forward to meeting him again in the rest of the series, but my favourites in this book were Amelia and Theo. Amelia, who is approaching middle age feeling friendless and unwanted, has invented an imaginary boyfriend to brighten up her non-existent social life, and Theo, for whom his daughter was the centre of his universe, is neglecting his health while he devotes his life to finding her killer, drawing up colour-coded charts of her friends and teachers and making yearly pilgrimages to the scene of her death. Their lives are sad, lonely and tragic, yet Atkinson injects just enough humour into their stories to turn them into characters who are amusing but not ridiculous, flawed but sympathetic.
I also thought the structure of the book was interesting, because the timeline is not entirely linear. We see events from one perspective in one chapter, then in the next chapter we go back several hours, days or weeks to see those same events from another character’s perspective, filling in gaps and adding to our knowledge of what is going on. Two of the case histories – Olivia’s disappearance and Laura’s murder – worked very well alongside each other, but the third one, involving Michelle and her sister, felt disconnected from the others and didn’t work quite as well. I think I had expected all three cases to be much more closely linked than they actually were and I was disappointed that they weren’t.
At the end of the book, after Jackson is sure he’s solved the crimes, there are still more twists to come. We are given enough information throughout the story so that we can guess at what may have happened and work out some parts of the mystery, but the final pieces of the puzzle are withheld from us until the very end.
That’s two Kate Atkinson books read and two enjoyed; now I can’t wait to read the second book in the Jackson Brodie series, One Good Turn.