Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

This is the fourth book in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series. For some reason, after reading the first three in quick succession in 2015, I never moved on to this one and it was only with the publication of the fifth book, Big Sky, earlier this year that I remembered I still needed to read it. Fortunately, the Jackson Brodie novels all stand alone very well so I found that it didn’t matter at all that I had left such a long gap between books three and four.

The plot of Started Early, Took My Dog is actually quite difficult to describe, but I’ll do my best. A good place to start is probably with Tracy Waterhouse, a retired police superintendent now working as head of security at the Merrion Shopping Centre in Leeds. Tracy is lonely and bored – she has no family, no friends and no social life; she gets up in the morning, goes to work, then comes home to spend every evening alone eating chocolate in front of the television. Then, one day, as she patrols the Merrion Centre, she sees a little girl being mistreated by Kelly Cross, a prostitute and drug addict whom Tracy recognises from her police days. She makes the decision to intervene and suddenly life becomes much more eventful!

While Tracy is trying to help an abused child, in a parallel storyline the novel’s other main protagonist, private investigator Jackson Brodie, is carrying out a good deed of his own. With a series of failed relationships behind him, Jackson is almost as lonely as Tracy, and when he witnesses a dog being kicked by its owner, he steps in and rescues it. The dog then becomes his inseparable companion as he embarks on his latest case – trying to trace the biological parents of Hope McMaster, a woman who was adopted as a child and grew up in New Zealand. This proves to be more difficult than he expected, because as soon as he starts asking questions it becomes obvious that those who do know the truth about Hope’s parentage will do anything to cover it up.

Jackson’s story quickly begins to intertwine with Tracy’s when he discovers that the murder of a woman in 1975 – a murder scene at which Tracy, then a young police officer, had been present – may have had something to do with the mystery of Hope’s origins. The novel moves backwards and forwards between the 1970s and 2010, showing how the events of the past have had an impact on the events of the present. Some of Tracy’s actions and choices following her encounter with the little girl in the Merrion Centre, for example, seem implausible at first but make more sense once you gain a deeper understanding of her background and her earlier experiences.

As with the other Jackson Brodie books, I found that the crime element of this one took second place to the characters. I thought Tracy was a great character and I loved her relationship with little Courtney, and, similarly, I enjoyed watching Jackson bonding with his new canine companion. The other character who stood out for me was Tilly, an elderly actress who is in the early stages of dementia; the way Kate Atkinson portrays Tilly’s fear and confusion over what is happening felt, to me, very convincing and very moving.

While the characters I’ve mentioned above were excellent, however, there were too many others whom I struggled to distinguish from each other; in particular, the other police officers involved in the 1975 storyline all seemed to blend into one which made that part of the book difficult to follow. There were also some subplots that didn’t seem to go anywhere and some important questions that remained unanswered at the end. Compared with the first three books in the series, I thought this one was disappointing. I’m sure I will still read Big Sky, but there are also a few other Kate Atkinson books I haven’t read yet: Transcription, Emotionally Weird and Not the End of the World. Have you read any of those and is there one you would particularly recommend?

15 thoughts on “Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

    • Kathy Dilk says:

      I probably liked Life After Life and A God in Ruins because I like books set during WW2….I also read
      Transcription, but was disappointed in it after the first two.

  1. volatilemuse says:

    I have to differ with the previous comments. I struggled with God in Ruins and Life and Life. The time shifts defeated me! I love Jackson Brodie though, maybe another chance to see Jason Isaacs on screen? Here’s hoping!

  2. Calmgrove says:

    Having only read the first two of the Brodie books and Transcription I’m not an ideal adviser but I did enjoy them all despite a certain unevenness about them all. I really don’t mind that unevenness if there are compensating factors like characters you can invest in, ideas to make you think and question, or even a twisty plot that makes you work for the payback!

    • Helen says:

      I know what you mean about the unevenness, but I agree that Kate Atkinson’s books are still enjoyable despite that. I think her characterisation is excellent and makes up for any other weaknesses in her work. I’ll have to read Transcription soon.

  3. Judy Krueger says:

    I am relieved to know that one does not need to remember the earlier books. I have only read the first in this series but one day I plan to read the rest. I think I liked the humor best.

    • Helen says:

      This works as a standalone story, but I would still recommend reading the books in order if you can. I love the humour in Kate Atkinson’s books too – I think she gets the balance between light and dark just right.

  4. buriedinprint says:

    Like you, I’ve fallen off the series for no good reason. And, like you, I’m content that the mystery falls second to the characters’ backstory and nowstory. She does it so well. I’ve not read the others you’ve mentioned, but I hope you enjoy them too!

    • Helen says:

      Thanks – I’m sure I will as I haven’t read anything by Kate Atkinson yet that I haven’t enjoyed. Her characters are always wonderful and feel very real.

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