'Started Early, Took My Dog': Kate Atkinson's story of a cop, a child rescue and a fabulous dog
British novelist Kate Atkinson's brilliant new novel, "Started Early, Took My Dog," features private eye Jackson Brodie, an aging actress and a retired cop whose life changes in a heartbeat when she buys an endangered child from her junkie minder. Atkinson, author of "Case Histories," appears April 3 at Seattle Mystery Bookshop and University Book Store.
Special to The Seattle Times
Kate AtkinsonThe author of "Started Early, Took My Dog" reads at 2 p.m. April 3 at Seattle's University Book Store; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
Kate Atkinson's brilliant, heartbreaking new book, "Started Early, Took My Dog" (Little, Brown, 385 pp., $24.99), takes its title from an Emily Dickinson poem. It's a haunting echo of the poem's elegiac tone and intimations of death — not to mention that dog.
Atkinson, who lives in Edinburgh, won the U.K's prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year award for her first novel, "Behind the Scenes at the Museum." Seven more novels, a play, and a story collection have followed. "Started Early" is Atkinson's fourth book to feature Jackson Brodie, a former police inspector turned private detective.
It's far from your standard-issue cop-turned-gumshoe fiction, however. Like the others built around Brodie, it uses the bones of the crime genre to create a richly emotional story that crosses the porous border separating genre fiction from Literature with a capital L.
Tracy Waterhouseis a lonely retired cop, now at loose ends and working security at a dreary mall in the industrial city of Leeds.
Tilly Squires is an aging, endearing television actress who is growing more confused by the day. She tends not to notice when her wig slips and, terrifyingly for an actress, is forgetting even the simplest words.
Meanwhile, Brodie is pursuing a difficult case: digging into the past of a woman who was adopted as a child.
The case, which the semiretired Brodie has reluctantly accepted, has him warily confronting his past failures as a father and husband. Along the way, he saves an abused dog — by the simple expedient of punching its minder's lights out and adopting it.
In a virtuoso performance, Atkinson introduces this trio's stories and links them together. Jackson and Tilly are (separately) shopping in the mall, and Tracy is at work there. Their paths lightly cross when Tilly is seen accidentally shoplifting.
The book's precision plotting kicks in after Tracy makes a sudden, irrational, illegal, and wonderfully brave decision. She sees a little girl being dragged through the mall and recognizes the woman doing the dragging — a well-known junkie, thief and all-around bad apple. To her own deep shock, Tracy steps in and literally buys the girl, giving the woman a wad of cash if she just disappears.
Now Tracy has rescued the solemn kid from a sad future — and has no clue how to be a mother, much less how to make her situation legal. So she does what parents everywhere do: she perseveres, makes mistakes and learns as she goes. So do Tilly and Jackson in their respective circumstances. The stories of these three crisscross, evoke old crimes and private regrets, and resonate with its characters' shared themes: adoption, abandonment, redemption.
Atkinson is a perceptive and big-hearted writer, fluent in conveying emotion with minimal, precise strokes. She also somehow finds ways to bring wit and energy into even the bleakest scenes. The book, especially the final melding of its layers, is deeply rewarding — despite the author's refusal to settle for a pat ending.
Plus, there's a bonus feature: one really spirited dog.
Adam Woog's column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.
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