November 2004

An exploration of past crimes

By Kate Atkinson
Review by
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Disparate family histories collide and long-buried secrets resurface in this ingeniously crafted modern-day suspense narrative that combines elements of a traditional detective novel with riveting psychological character studies. Kate Atkinson, award-winning British author of Behind the Scenes at the Museum and two other novels, artfully incorporates her gothic sensibility and keen observations on human nature into a compelling page-turner that explores the fine line between love and obsession, grief and recovery, guilt and redemption.

Case Histories introduces us to a convincing mix of unconventional families and imperfect individuals whose lives are pockmarked by loss, abandonment and regret. Startling connections between them emerge when three different decades-old mysteries are thrust into the lap of private detective Jackson Brodie. First, there's the disappearance of three-year-old Olivia Land, whose aging sisters discover a disquieting clue among their deceased father's possessions; then the inexplicable stabbing of 18-year-old Laura Wyre by a deranged stranger during a routine workday at her father's law office; and finally, the grisly ax murder of a hapless husband ostensibly by his young wife in a fit of despair and rage. The tragedy and horror of these bygone crimes is brought sharply into focus through the use of omniscient narration, which crisscrosses family histories and vividly allows us to examine the three crime scenes in both the past and present tense.

Although decades may have intervened and the tragic headlines are now forgotten by most, the family members affected by these traumas still crave closure, leading them to Brodie's doorstep in a final attempt to lay their ghosts to rest. The emphatic private eye absorbs the burden of their collective grief while attempting to track down new leads and piece together the missing links of the long-unsolved cases. Meanwhile, he struggles with his own host of personal problems including an acrimonious divorce, a daughter growing up too quickly, and the sudden appearance of a mysterious enemy who seems to want him dead. Increasingly, Brodie's own life takes a backseat as he becomes irreversibly entangled in the melancholic lives of his clients the quirky and spinsterish Land sisters, the lonely and grief-obsessed father Theo Wyre, and the enigmatic sister of the convicted ax murderess, who harbors a dark secret. As he begins to unravel the threads of their seemingly incongruous cases, he uncovers subtle connections and painful truths that eventually help heal old wounds as well as bring his own troubles into sharp relief.

Featuring an engagingly offbeat private detectives and an equally intriguing cast of complex and lovably eccentric characters, Case Histories propels the reader forward with a rare intensity and compassion. With an unerring eye for domestic detail, Atkinson peels back the cozy trappings of family life to expose the imperfections that often lie beneath the favoritism, selfishness and jealousy that can form dangerous fault lines. Expertly laying bare human frailties and failings, the novel exposes the indelible bonds that connect individuals and the power of emotions to alter the course of family histories. Atkinson has conjured a wonderfully inventive take on the classic detective novel that jolts readers out of complacency by combining ordinary settings with macabre twists. The result is a highly original and entertaining novel that is the author's best to date, successfully blending elements of comedy and tragedy with rich insights into the human heart.


Joni Rendon writes from Hoboken, New Jersey.

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Case Histories

Case Histories

By Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316740401

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