Sunday, June 05, 2011

Case Histories -- Kate Atkinson

Three cold cases form the basis for this novel. The cases and their roots in the past are laid out in the beginning, and then in the present a private-eye named Jackson Brodie is hired to look into them. Brodie, a former police inspector, has a number of problems of his own. His wife has left him and married another man, and he's started smoking again. His cases aren't very interesting. For example, one of them involves looking for an old woman's cats. Then the three cold cases come into his life, and things perk up considerably for him.

As he begins his investigations, the lives of the principals in the cases intersect occasionally, but only coincidentally. What really interests Atkinson, it seems, is the lives of all the characters. On rara-avis, the hard-boiled list, a couple of people are discussing one of Elmore Leonard's "rules," the one about leaving out "the part that readers tend to
skip" -- detailed descriptions of weather, place, things, characters, and so on. Atkinson doesn't follow this rule. In fact, most of the book is made up of those things.

There's another rule that every writer or would-be writer has heard a million times: "show, don't tell." Atkinson flouts that one, too. Probably 80% of this book is telling. And I don't see a thing wrong with that. When did the "show, don't tell" rule come along, anyway? With Hammett and Hemingway? Case Histories is a throwback to a different kind of writing, and obviously a lot of people like it. I generally prefer leaner stuff, but now and then something like Case Histories is kind of fun.

My main problem with the intertwined stories is that I knew almost from the beginning where two of them were going. There was no way to know about the third because the information wasn't there. I also knew just about exactly what was going on with the Cat Lady and how that tale would turn out. I didn't really mind. Sometimes the trip is more important than the destination. The next time you want a change of pace from the lean and mean (if you ever do), you might give Case Histories a try.

4 comments:

Shelly said...

I've read the first 3 Jackson Brodie books (and am going to get the new one) and her excellent Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I don't like the whole "writing rules" bit because it makes brilliant writers like Atkinson seem like they're breaking something rather than just writing great stories that are fun to read.

The mystery in her mysteries might not be all that mysterious, but her characters are people I enjoy spending time with.

BTW, I just read the first two books by Tana French and enjoyed them, but thought she went into too much detail upfront that made me start to lose interest, but once she got into the heart of the story, they were great. I don't recall if you've reviewed her books. If so, just point me to the posts. If not, have you read her? What do you think?

Bill Crider said...

Have one or two on the shelves. Will get to them eventually.

Deb said...

I love the Jackson Brodie books (there are now four of them and I would recommend they be read in order because characters do change and go in and out of Brodie's life), but to me they are not even mysteries and I wonder about them being marketed that way. They are really more about how people deal with tragedy, loss, lost opportunities, and even love and joy. If you read them looking for a "good" mystery, I don't think you'll get much out of them (as Bill notes, when you get the information, much of the "solution" seems obvious); but if you're looking for a good read, these are definitely worthwhile.

As for Tana French, I liked all three of her books, but I thought THE LIKENESS was the best, since it wasn't as unresolved as IN THE WOODS or as obvious as FAITHFUL PLACE.

Shelly said...

Deb, I've read In the Woods and The Likeness and thought The Likeness was much better. In the Woods left me so frustrated because she didn't resolve one of the mysteries. I've been thinking of reading Faithful Place next. I hadn't found anyone who read it so I could get an opinion. Since you liked it, I'll probably give it a try. Thanks. :)

As for Jackson Brodie, I think of that series as suspenseful fiction. ;)