Disparate family histories collide and long-buried secrets resurface in this ingeniously crafted modern-day suspense narrative that combines elements of a traditional detective novel with riveting psychological character studies. Kate Atkinson, award-winning British author of Behind the Scenes at the Museum and two other novels, artfully incorporates her gothic sensibility and keen observations on human nature into a compelling page-turner that explores the fine line between love and obsession, grief and recovery, guilt and redemption.
Case Histories introduces us to a convincing mix of unconventional families and imperfect individuals whose lives are pockmarked by loss, abandonment and regret. Startling connections between them emerge when three different decades-old mysteries are thrust into the lap of private detective Jackson Brodie. First, there's the disappearance of three-year-old Olivia Land, whose aging sisters discover a disquieting clue among their deceased father's possessions; then the inexplicable stabbing of 18-year-old Laura Wyre by a deranged stranger during a routine workday at her father's law office; and finally, the grisly ax murder of a hapless husband ostensibly by his young wife in a fit of despair and rage. The tragedy and horror of these bygone crimes is brought sharply into focus through the use of omniscient narration, which crisscrosses family histories and vividly allows us to examine the three crime scenes in both the past and present tense.
Although decades may have intervened and the tragic headlines are now forgotten by most, the family members affected by these traumas still crave closure, leading them to Brodie's doorstep in a final attempt to lay their ghosts to rest. The emphatic private eye absorbs the burden of their collective grief while attempting to track down new leads and piece together the missing links of the long-unsolved cases. Meanwhile, he struggles with his own host of personal problems including an acrimonious divorce, a daughter growing up too quickly, and the sudden appearance of a mysterious enemy who seems to want him dead.
Increasingly, Brodie's own life takes a backseat as he becomes irreversibly entangled in the melancholic lives of his clients—the quirky and spinsterish Land sisters, the lonely and grief-obsessed father Theo Wyre, and the enigmatic sister of the convicted ax murderess, who harbors a dark secret. As he begins to unravel the threads of their seemingly incongruous cases, he uncovers subtle connections and painful truths that eventually help heal old wounds as well as bring his own troubles into sharp relief.
Featuring an engagingly offbeat private detectives and an equally intriguing cast of complex and lovably eccentric characters, Case Histories propels the reader forward with a rare intensity and compassion. With an unerring eye for domestic detail, Atkinson peels back the cozy trappings of family life to expose the imperfections that often lie beneath—the favoritism, selfishness and jealousy that can form dangerous fault lines. Expertly laying bare human frailties and failings, the novel exposes the indelible bonds that connect individuals and the power of emotions to alter the course of family histories.
Atkinson has conjured a wonderfully inventive take on the classic detective novel that jolts readers out of complacency by combining ordinary settings with macabre twists. The result is a highly original and entertaining novel that is the author's best to date, successfully blending elements of comedy and tragedy with rich insights into the human heart.
Joni Rendon writes from Hoboken, New Jersey. Copyright 2004 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2004 August #2
After two self-indulgent detours, Atkinson proves that her Whitbread Award-winning debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1996), was no fluke with a novel about three interconnected mysteries.They seem totally unrelated at first to private detective Jackson Brodie, hired by separate individuals in Cambridge, England, to investigate long-dormant cases. Three-year-old Olivia Land disappeared from a tent in her family's backyard in 1970; 34 years later, her sisters Amelia and Julia discover Olivia's stuffed toy in their recently deceased father's study and want Jackson to find out what he had to do with the disappearance. Theo Wyre's beloved 18-year-old daughter Laura was murdered by a knife-wielding lunatic in 1994, and he too hires Jackson to crack this unsolved murder. Michelle was also 18 when she went to jail in 1979 for killing her husband with an ax while their infant daughter wailed in the playpen; she vanished after serving her time, but Shirley Morrison asks Jackson to find, not her sister Michelle, but the niece she promised to raise, then was forced to hand over to grandparents. The detective, whose bitter ex-wife uses Jackson's profound love for their eight-year-old daughter to torture him, finds all these stories of dead and/or missing girls extremely unsettling; we learn toward the end why the subject of young women in peril is particularly painful for him. Atkinson has always been a gripping storyteller, and her complicated narrative crackles with the earthy humor, vibrant characterizations, and shrewd social observations that enlivened her first novel but were largely swamped by postmodern game-playing in Human Croquet (1997) and Emotionally Weird (2000). Here, she crafts a compulsive page-turner that looks deep into the heart of sadness, cruelty, and loss, yet ultimately grants her charming p.i. (and most of the other appealingly offbeat characters, including one killer) a chance at happiness and some measure of reconciliation with the past.Wonderful fun and very moving: it's a pleasure to see this talented writer back on form.Agent: Peter Straus/Rogers, Coleridge & White
Library Journal Reviews 2004 July #1
Connected cases: a vanished sister, a lawyer daughter, and a murderously mad young mom. From the author of the award-winning Behind the Scenes of the Museum. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2004 September #2
Edinburgh resident Atkinson has been touted for her clever subversion of the standard family saga (the Whitbread Prize-winning Behind the Scenes at the Museum), as well as her playful parody and magic realism (Not the End of the World). Now she turns her deft hand to the hard-boiled detective genre and wreaks a similarly wonderful havoc. Cambridge P.I. and Francophile Jackson Brodie serves as the link among three interwoven tales. Red herrings abound as Jackson plows through the sad cases of a missing toddler, a young woman brutally killed while temping at her father's law firm, and an overwrought mother driven to ax murder. The relatives of the victims, Jackson's motley clientele, prove to be alternatively pitiable and hilarious but always painfully human. Superfluous plot elements involving attempts on Brodie's life and the running commentary on Brodie's musical tastes may lead to comparisons with Ian Rankin's Inspector John Rebus series, but only briefly, for this is a very new world of old crimes. Recommended for larger fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/04.] Jenn B. Stidham, Harris Cty. P.L., Houston Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2004 October #4
In this ambitious fourth novel from Whitbread winner Atkinson (Behind the Scenes at the Museum), private detective Jackson Brodie-ex-cop, ex-husband and weekend dad-takes on three cases involving past crimes that occurred in and around London. The first case introduces two middle-aged sisters who, after the death of their vile, distant father, look again into the disappearance of their beloved sister Olivia, last seen at three years old, while they were camping under the stars during an oppressive heat wave. A retired lawyer who lives only on the fumes of possible justice next enlists Jackson's aid in solving the brutal killing of his grown daughter 10 years earlier. In the third dog-eared case file, the sibling of an infamous ax-bludgeoner seeks a reunion with her niece, who as a baby was a witness to murder. Jackson's reluctant persistence heats up these cold cases and by happenstance leads him to reassess his own painful history. The humility of the extraordinary, unabashed characters is skillfully revealed with humor and surprise. Atkinson contrasts the inevitable results of family dysfunction with random fate, gracefully weaving the three stories into a denouement that taps into collective wishful thinking and suggests that warmth and safety may be found in the aftermath of blood and abandonment. Atkinson's meaty, satisfying prose will attract many eager readers. Agent, Kim Witherspoon. (Nov. 9) Forecast: Blurbs from Rachel Cusk and Jim Crace and elegant, subdued jacket art should remind readers that Atkinson crosses genres, attracting readers of literary fiction as well as thrillers. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.