Brodie’s back, with Atkinson providing the literary bite

By Kate Tuttle
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2011

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Jackson Brodie, the protagonist of Kate Atkinson’s last three novels, is a veteran of war, police work, two marriages, and father to two perplexingly distant children. As a private detective — a job he only grudgingly claims for himself — Brodie often finds himself trying to protect, rescue, and find missing women, even while he ponders his own vexed relationship with his sister, wives, and daughter. In “Started Early, Took My Dog,’’ Brodie again tugs at the loose threads of happenstance and history in his search for an adopted woman’s birth parents, or at least her backstory.

Coincidence has always been a key to mystery writing, and nobody turns that key quite like Atkinson, whose early literary novels often revolved around puzzles, games, and tricks. Here, in her fourth mystery starring Brodie, she once again weaves a story where the not-quite-opposing forces of chance and logic do battle. Part of what makes Brodie such a good detective is his dogged recognition of how one thing leads to another; a frequent refrain in his endearingly mournful internal monologue is “for want of a nail,’’ from the nursery rhyme that details the calamities that occur (“a shoe was lost / for want of a shoe, the horse was lost,’’ and so on). Atkinson’s lyrical revisiting of such touchstones, from nursery rhymes to late-70s northern English pop culture to the poems of Emily Dickinson (one of which provides the book’s title) helps elevate these books above any genre label.

Preoccupied, even haunted, by the loss of his sister some 40 years earlier, this time Brodie is not searching for a missing woman, but rather seeking a woman’s missing childhood; his client, adopted as a toddler, wants to know where she comes from. In the course of finding out, Brodie encounters a decades-old coverup, an ongoing child abduction that may turn out to be more morally acceptable than the client’s adoption, and a companion — a dog, naturally — who may be a better fit for him than any human could be. This book rarely reaches the perfection in tone or pace Atkinson attained in “Case Histories,’’ the first Jackson Brodie mystery — there’s something a bit jangling and jittery, especially in the rushing stream-of-consciousness voice of the book’s least necessary character, an aging actress. Still, it is filled with smart, moving, powerful moments, especially in the relationship between Tracy Waterhouse, a newly retired, middle-aged policewoman, and her 4-year-old charge, Courtney. Putting the child to bed for the first time, Waterhouse, a veteran observer of crimes against the innocent, notes, “Christ, you could get a little kid to do anything, you just told them and they did it. Horrifying.’’

Atkinson probes the territory surrounding innocence, gender, and crime — and even crime writing — with high literary style and a deep, abiding humanity. If you are someone who has never felt any attraction to mystery books, avoiding them on the grounds that they are formulaic (whether hard-boiled or drawing-room genteel), Atkinson might change your mind. In Brodie she has created a detective whose ambivalence, sadness, and anger will appeal to anyone who has ever wondered why men kill women, or what to do when confronted with the world’s horrors. “No end to evil, really,’’ Waterhouse muses. “What could you do? You could start with one small kid.’’

In Atkinson’s mysteries, the fact that women and children are often victims of male violence is never an afterthought; it is central to the rage that powers both Brodie’s quests and this book’s righteous urgency.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at


Reagan Arthur Books, 400 pp., $24.99