When one of the books you have been most looking forward to all year pops through my letter box my mind seems to split in two. The first half wants to drop whatever it is I am already reading and start it that second. The second half holds off with a mixture of wanting to wait because once I have read it its read and also the fear that it might not be as good as the others. I always find the latter interesting as I don’t tend to be a pessimistic person. These debates went on when ‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ (which might be one of my favourite book titles of the year) by Kate Atkinson arrived, in the end however I just caved in.
‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ is the fourth in what has become a series of ‘literary crime’ novels, as they have been pigeon-holed by publishers/bookshops not by me, featuring Jackson Brodie. Yet if you are now worrying ‘oh I haven’t read the other three’ fear not because what is brilliant about this set of books is that they all stand alone and (as a few of my family members have – not naming any names) you could read them in any order. But let’s get onto what ‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ is all about shall we?
To try and encapsulate the story or plot of ‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ is actually quite difficult. It’s quite a complex plot, though not so complex you have no enjoyment in it in fact quite the opposite, told over two periods in time and through several different view points in each. As the main story, told in the present day, opens we are in Yorkshire where Jackson Brodie has come out of ‘semi retirement’ as a private investigator to look into the past of Hope McMaster who was adopted and taken to New Zealand. We also have Matilda ‘Tilly’ Squires an aging and slightly forgotten actress in the Yorkshire drama ‘Collier’ who is suffering from the start of dementia. We also have Tracy Waterhouse a former Sergeant for the West Yorkshire Police and now Head of Security in the Merrion Shopping Centre who is completely unaware that she is about to do something that will change her life forever.
The second interweaving back story from mid 1970’s when Yorkshire was in the grip of several serial killers. This is where we meet a much younger Tracy and her colleagues investigating the murder of a prostitute and her son who vanishes from orphanage to orphanage as if someone wants him not to be found. How does all this weave together and what does it have to do with the aforementioned Tilly and Jackson? Well you would have to read the book to find out and you really should because the way Atkinson does it is not only incredibly clever (without leaving the reader completely lost) it’s also very readable.
The more I read of Atkinson’s work and in particular this series, the more of a genius I think she is. Not only do you have a mystery or two in the book to work out, you have this overall mystery of just how on earth everything interlinks and with ‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ she draws out the process by introducing each character and bringing their circumstances and personalities to the fore. No one dimensional characters here, not even if they are merely in the book for a page or two. All the main characters are marvellous, readable and real. In doing so she also gets to voice her thoughts on both issues from the past (in this case the serial killings in the seventies which gripped the nation and left many women in fear) and in the present (prostitution, child welfare, the recession, dementia) through their back stories which makes it even a fuller read. If you are reading them in order and for Jackson Brodie (as my Gran does) then he does soften a little in this one and all because of the most surprising new sidekick.
I also think ‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ has learnt from its excellent predecessors. It has the darkness of ‘Case Histories’, the humour – though less farcical and more contained – of ‘One Good Turn’ and the brilliant complexities of the coincidental plotting in ‘When Will There Be Good News?’ whilst also like its predecessors being nothing like any that have gone before it. I can’t wait for the next one!
A book that will: show you why crime fiction can be so good and why its so annoying that some of it doesn’t get a mention in the big prize long lists. 10/10
I don’t think I can suggest any perfect prose partners for this other than the earlier books in the series. I could suggest some of the Sophie Hannah or Susan Hill crime novels because Hannah makes the impossible and complex possible, and Hill interweaves crime with great social awareness and themes, yet though I love them dearly Atkinson seems to interweave the two. If you haven’t read these then you really must. If you have read this and/or its predecessors what did you think? Which other novels by Atkinson have you tried? I really must give ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ a whirl.