Case Histories (Atkinson)

Case Histories 
Kate Atkinson, 2004
Little, Brown & Co.
400 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780316033480

A triumphant new novel from award-winner Kate Atkinson: a breathtaking story of families divided, love lost and found, and the mysteries of fate.

Case One: Olivia Land, youngest and most beloved of the Land girls, goes missing in the night and is never seen again. Thirty years later, two of her surviving sisters unearth a shocking clue to Olivia's disappearance among the clutter of their childhood home...

Case Two: Theo delights in his daughter Laura's wit, effortless beauty, and selfless love. But her first day as an associate in his law firm is also the day when Theo's world turns upside down...

Case Three: Michelle looks around one day and finds herself trapped in a hell of her own making. A very needy baby and a very demanding husband make her every waking moment a reminder that somewhere, somehow, she'd made a grave mistake and would spend the rest of her life paying for it—until a fit of rage creates a grisly, bloody escape.

As Private Detective Jackson Brodie investigates all three cases, startling connections and discoveries emerge. Inextricably caught up in his clients grief, joy, and desire, Jackson finds their unshakable need for resolution very much like his own.

Kate Atkinson's celebrated talent makes for a novel that positively sparkles with surprise, comedy, tragedy, and constant, page-turning delight. (From the publisher.)

This is the first in the Jackson Brodie series, followed by One Good Turn and When Will There be Good News.

Author Bio
Where—York, England, UK
Education—M.A., Dundee University
Awards—Whitbread Award; Woman's Own Short Story Award; Ian St. James Award;
   Saltire Book of the Year Award; Prix Westminster
Currently—lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

Kate Atkinson was born in York, and studied English Literature at the University of Dundee, gaining her Masters Degree in 1974. She subsequently studied for a doctorate in American Literature which she failed at the viva stage. During her final year of this course, she was married for the first time, although the marriage lasted only two years.

After leaving the university, she took on a variety of miscellaneous jobs from home help to legal secretary and teacher. She lived in Whitby, Yorkshire for a time, before moving to Edinburgh, where she taught at Dundee University and began writing short stories. She now lives in Edinburgh.

She initially wrote for women's magazines after winning the 1986 Woman's Own Short Story Competition. She was runner-up for the Bridport Short Story Prize in 1990 and won an Ian St James Award in 1993 for her short-story "Karmic Mothers," which she later adapted for BBC2 television as part of its Tartan Shorts series.

Atkinson's breakthrough was with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which won the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year award, ahead of Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh and Roy Jenkins biography of William Ewart Gladstone. The book has been adapted for radio, theatre and television. She has since written several more novels, short stories and a play. Case Histories (2004) was described by Stephen King as "the best mystery of the decade." The book won the Saltire Book of the Year Award and the Prix Westminster.

Her work is often celebrated for its wit, wisdom and subtle characterisation, and the surprising twists and plot turns. Four of her novels have featured the popular former detective Jackson Brodie—Case Histories (2004), One Good Turn (2006), When Will There Be Good News (2008), and Started Early, Took My Dog (2010). She has shown that, stylistically, she is also a comic novelist who often juxtaposes mundane everyday life with fantastic magical events, a technique that contributes to her work's pervasive magic realism.

Life After Life (2013) revolves around Ursula Todd's continual birth and rebirth. Janet Maslin of the New York Times called it "a big book that defies logic, chronology and even history in ways that underscore its author's fully untethered imagination."

A God in Ruins (2015), the companion book to Life After Life, follows Ursula's brother Todd who survived the war, only to succumb to disillusionment and guilt at having survived.

Atkinson was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2011 Birthday Honours for services to literature. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
The lifelike characters in Case Histories are what make it such a compelling hybrid: part complex family drama, part mystery. It winds up having more depth and vividness than ordinary thrillers and more thrills than ordinary fiction, with a constant awareness of perils swirling beneath its surface.
Janet Maslin - New York Times

Certain characters are the stock in trade of detective novels: innocent female murder victims, embittered spinsters, wives with secrets, teenage runaways, sexy old actresses and men who feel driven to try, over and over, to protect or avenge the downtrodden. Kate Atkinson's latest novel contains all these characters, which might suggest it's just another variation on a host of well-worn themes—but, amazingly enough, this cast, as familiar as it is, still has the power to ensnare us. In fact, Case Histories is so exuberant, so empathetic, that it makes most murder-mystery page-turners feel as lifeless as the corpses they're strewn with.
Jacqueline Carey - New York Times Book Review

Breaking detective-thriller form, Case Histories is told from multiple points of view, reducing the burden on Jackson to "solve" the crimes for us and letting each character bloom in the light of the author's sharp, observant prose. That's something that the genre's hard-boiled forefathers would never have done; for them, the ratiocinative novel was a one-man job, and sympathetic characters just gummed up the works. Kate Atkinson, though, seems to have intuited that the most compelling mystery of all isn't necessarily whodunit, but rather howtodealwithit.
Jeff Turrentine - Washington Post

In this ambitious fourth novel from Whitbread winner Atkinson, 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. Atkinson crosses genres, attracting readers of literary fiction as well as thrillers.
Publishers Weekly

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. —Jenn B. Stidham, Harris Cty. P.L., Houston
Library Journal

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 craftsa 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.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. The three cases that open Case Histories are at first quite separate, and leave you wondering how Atkinson is going to pull it all together into one story. You might discuss whether she is successful at doing that—and how.

2. Case Histories has three unsolved crimes and has a private eye as hero. Kate Atkinson is known as a 'literary writer' and won the Whitbread Prize for her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. How is Case Histories different from a traditional detectvie novel—or is it?

3. Jackson believes "that his job was to help people be good rather than punish them for being bad." Another discussion point would be whether you think he is a moral character, and how you feel the revelation of the tragedy in his own past illuminates his actions in the novel.

4. To Jackson, it seems as if everyone he encounters has lost someone or something. One of Kate Atkinson's recurrent themes is that of lost children. In spite of her wicked sense of humour, she creates an overwhelming sense of tension in this novel. Is it that this theme speaks directly to the lost child deep inside every one of us?

5. "Novels gave you a completely false idea about life, they told lies and the implied there were endings when in reality there were no endings, everything just went on and on and on." Is Kate Atkinson being mischievous here, or is this statement true of this novel?
(Questions issued by Transworld Publishers.)

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