Case Histories

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Case Histories , Kate Atkinson, book reviewKate Atkinson is a versatile writer. Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the Whitbread Prize and would be considered by many as a modern classic. She subsequently wrote several other novels which would probably be classified as literary fiction, but more recently she has also written several books of crime fiction.

Having read her earlier books, I have been meaning to read the crime fiction for some time. Case Histories was the first of these and introduces Jackson Brodie, a former police officer turned private investigator. The books were televised earlier this year, which has probably introduced Brodie to a much wider audience who will hopefully be encouraged to try her other books.

As would be expected given Kate Atkinson’s pedigree, the quality of the writing is excellent. I read a reasonably large amount of crime fiction, and the best features not only by a strong plot but also characters which are convincing, interesting and believable. Jackson Brodie certainly falls into this category. In Case Histories, he is introduced gradually and elements of this past history are gradually revealed through the course of the book. The Case Histories of the title refers not only to a series of mysteries which Jackson investigates, but also to his own personal history.

No matter how good the quality of the writing, Case Histories would fail as crime fiction if the plot was not also very strong. I suspect that not many writers of literary fiction could turn their hand to crime fiction as successfully has Atkinson has done – the good news is that the plot is excellent, with many twists and turns, and is certainly sufficient to keep any reader equally turning the pages.

The first three chapters of the book introduce three mysteries, set many years apart but which ultimately proved to be linked by intersecting characters. The main body of the book alternates between the three mysteries, which Jackson investigates in parallel, and this is interleaved with the story of his personal life. Sequential chapters are told from the perspective of different characters, and one of the interesting aspects of Atkinson’s approach is that these chapters overlap, so that we are given accounts of the same events by different participants. As we near the end of the book the mysteries are resolved in the reverse order to which they are presented, giving a neat and symmetrical structure to the plot.

Each of the three mysteries involves characters who are superbly captured and portrayed. Their voices are quite different, and their thoughts and actions are beautifully described in a way that makes them appear very real. Since this book deals with some serious crimes, there is of course a good deal of misery and suffering, but there is some type of positive resolution in each case, even for Jackson, so that the overall tone is not as gloomy as much contemporary crime fiction. Overall, I enjoyed this book very much and look forward to reading its successors. Hopefully, the crime fiction will attract many more readers to Atkinson’s work and then perhaps on to her more obviously literary novels.

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Case Histories
by Kate Atkinson

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Written by Ian

Ian is a medical academic with a long standing interest in books, particularly literary and crime fiction, as both a reader and a collector. He has published extensively in the scientific literature, mainly on nutrition. He has two grown-up children and lives in Ireland.

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