The case for Case Histories

In conjunction with the impending U.S. release of the BBC TV version of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories (not that an occasion should be necessary — and I did mention in my review of Started Early, Took My Dog that I would be going back to earlier Atkinson works), let us consider the audiobook version of that title (read by Susan Jameson, Hatchette Audio, 2oo8). First, I should say that I was mightily tempted to immediately go back and listen to Case Histories a second time, as I had done with Started Early. What is it about this woman’s books that seems to provoke this impulse? No doubt the multiple intertwined plot lines have something to do with it. And then there is the odd character who seems to barge into the narrative gratuitously (see Howell, below), then hijack it to the extent that sometimes seems out of proportion to the character’s importance to the plot. Exhibit A: Binky Rain.

Ms. Rain is a somewhat loopy oldster who lives alone — well, except for a herd of cats. One or more cats has disappeared and she has hired the novel’s hero, private detective Jackson Brodie, to find it, or them. But wait, Rain also happens to have been the next door neighbor of the Land family when the youngest daughter of that clan, Olivia Land, disappeared (like the cats??) in 1970. This would be Case History #1. Thirty-four years or so later, two of Olivia’s surviving sisters, Amelia and Julia, also hire Brodie to find out what happened to their baby sister. The impetus for their renewed interest is the discovery of one of Olivia’s toys, a stuffed animal (Blue Mouse — cats and mouse? — no, too easy) among their father Victor’s effects after his death. Hmmm. Did Victor, a sociopath who, we learn, sexually abused his daughters (when he wasn’t ignoring them) have something to do with Olivia’s disappearance?

So, anyway, Binky’s got the proximity to the Land family and her relationship with Brodie going for her as it relates to the rationale for her presence as a character in the book. Oh, yeah, and some other stuff involving Brodie that I won’t get into so as not to be a spoiler. Okay, so maybe she does justify her existence. I’ll leave that up to other listeners.

Whatever Binky’s value as a character, Susan Jameson certainly does a great job with her voice. Jameson does a great job with all the voices, really. She makes no mistakes (at least none that I could detect); she is clear, articulate and her pacing is excellent. The book is almost worth listening to just for her narration. Unfortunately, even her excellent reading won’t likely help you follow the plot. Can you say “convoluted?”

Case History #2 involves the murder of a young woman named Laura Wyre by an apparent madman who, wielding a knife, invades the offices where Laura’s father, Theo, is a partner in a law firm and slices his daughter’s throat. She bleeds out right there in the conference room. The killer flees and is never caught. Ten years later, Theo hires Brodie to try to learn the killer’s identity.

Case History #3 has to do with the death of a husband, apparently at the hands of his wife, whose name is Michelle at the time of this event (1979?) but who has changed her name to Caroline, in addition to changing her life after serving time in prison or the psych ward for her husband’s murder. It is Michelle’s/Caroline’s sister, Shirley, who hires Brodie in this case. She wants to learn the whereabouts of Michelle’s daughter, Tanya, who witnessed the murder as a young child. Hmmm. Why?

Are you still with me? Well, it gets more complicated.

I hate to give too much away, but I have to mention that Tanya eventually shows up and manages to encounter nearly all of the characters I’ve mentioned. And my question is this:

Do all of these people live on the same fucking block???!!

It is a small world, indeed, that is inhabited by the characters of Atkinson’s fiction (we observed the same phenomenon in Started Early) and it makes for some coincidences that would send most authors to the penalty box for at least a five-minute major, if not to an early shower with a game misconduct. And I haven’t even mentioned the inclusion of some back story on Jackson Brodie having to do with the murder of his sister some thirty-three years earlier.

The theme here, of course, is how these traumas of violence and loss psychologically maim the survivors and degrade their subsequent existences until the chemical reaction of Brodie’s involvement with all of them transforms everyone’s life with some resolution or other.

And while I’ve given Atkinson some grief over things like, well, plausibility, I really do appreciate her ability to create the interior drama, the unique emotional atmosphere, that each of her characters projects through the narrative.

Well, okay. Not all of her characters. Take the character of Howell, for example. He’s Brodie’s best friend, according to Atkinson. But this is not the equivalent of Holmes’s Dr. Watson. (I don’t recall any Howell cameos in Started Early.) When Howell’s name came up towards the end of the novel, it came as an almost complete surprise to me. Who the fuck is Howell? I remember asking myself. Again, this could be part of the problem with listening to a book as intricately structured as Case Histories rather than actually reading it. You can’t just flip back through the pages scanning for “Howell.” In fact, I had to go to the library and pore over a printed version of the book to reacquaint myself with Howell’s appearance earlier in the book.

So, here’s my theory (which could be totally invalidated by the plots of One Good Turn or When Will There Be Good News?, neither of which I’ve gotten to yet): Howell turns up as a — or the — major character in a future Jackson Brodie novel.

Waddya think?





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