High praise goes to Kate Atkinson’s novel, Started Early Took My Dog. It’s the fourth novel by Atkinson to feature PI Jackson Brodie, and in my typical fashion, I am only now just getting to this author. This means I have some catch-up to do because after reading this one, I know I want to read all the earlier novels. I’m not going to write a full review. For that, go to Mostly Fiction.
Instead here’s the novel in brief: the two main characters are “butch old battlexe” Tracy Waterhouse, in her 50s, a retired Detective Superintendent from the West Yorkshire Police Dept and PI Jackson Brodie. Tracy, bored to tears in retirement, is now Head of Security at a local shopping centre. Tracy, who has never married, becomes mixed up with the fate of a badly neglected child, and this sends her life into a tailspin. She’s also about to run into Jackson Brodie who’s been employed by an adopted girl in New Zealand to find her real parents. Clues lead to Tracy and an old murder case from 1975.
The novel goes back and forth between 1975 Yorkshire “awash with serial killers” and the present, and several threads regarding lost girls (kidnapped, missing, murdered) run throughout this simply marvellous story. This is not primarily a crime novel–although the action is built around several crimes; instead this is a superbly built story of several characters whose lives are shaped by crime. These characters make spilt-second decisions that haunt them for a lifetime, and this leads to crimes or sometimes serious errors in judgment. As the novel slips back and forth between 1975 and the present, we enter a time warp of attitudes. Tough women are either “butch” or “lezzies” and prostitutes ‘had it coming.’ Atkinson shows us that some attitudes have improved while others have just submerged and morphed into new pathologies. A strangely poignant tale with dense characterisation, this is a novel that may convince some readers to dip into a genre they normally avoid.
One of the things I particularly liked about the novel is the way in which the plot explored characters haunted by past experiences or by poor decisions they made. Here’s Tracy looking back over her career:
Tracy had a sudden, unexpected memory of the endless, thankless task of indexing cards during the Ripper investigation. The police had people out taking down registrations of cars in the red-light district, spotting ones that turned up regularly, triple sightings in Bradford, Leeds, and Manchester. Sutcliffe was one of those, of course–interviewed nine times, exonerated. So many mistakes. Tracy was still naive, no idea how many men used prostitutes, thousands from all walks of life. She could hardly believe it. Gambling, drinking, whoring–the three pillars of western civilization.