Let’s start the way Kate Atkinson starts her rich and tricky fourth novel, Case Histories; that is to say, with the case histories of the title:
We have a woman who once thought she was marrying a “great mathematician” but now finds herself—a mother of four daughters and pregnant again—wondering what her glowering husband “would look like when he was dead.” Her oldest three children had “evolved into a collective child to which she found it hard to attribute individual details.” Her youngest, Olivia, “was the only one she loved, although God knows she tried her best with the others.” It is Olivia who, from a backyard tent one hot summer night, disappears forever.
We have another parent, a widower who is “morbidly obese” according to his doctor, and so in love with his university-age daughter, Laura, that he is morbidly fixated on all the bad things that could happen to her. (Of his other grown daughter, he rarely thinks much.) Laura is perfect and “still a virgin (he knew because she told him, to his embarrassment), which made him feel immensely relieved.” He worries her out of a summer job at a pub, and places her where he can see her—in his own law firm as a temp. On her first day, a lunatic comes in off the street and Laura is promptly stabbed to death.
And we have a newlywed mother, Michelle, who calls her
new baby “it.” This infant daughter has prevented her from “drinking like a fish and taking drugs and handing in mediocre essays on the ‘1832 Reform Act.’” It’s not that
she didn’t have any love at all for her husband and daughter, “she just couldn’t feel it.” One day, after she has finally gotten her shrieking baby to sleep, her young husband inadvertently wakes up the child. And so Michelle splits his head open with an ax.
But hold on, as it soon becomes clear that the case histories of Case Histories include not only disappearances and murders, but all the old English detective novels Kate Atkinson has ever read and enjoyed. And just as the Whitbread Award–winning writer has inventively conjured up Borges, Mary Poppins, and Ovid in previous books (such as Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Not the End of the World ), she begins to conjure up all manner of elements from the detective genre in a mix of (mainly understated) send-up and admiration.
So here comes Mister Jackson Brodie, the private detective who, years later, will bring all these cases together—and who will ultimately reveal that none of it is as it seems! He’s a “born-again smoker” with a toothache, a country-music-loving resident of Cambridge, England, and a divorced father who, needless to say, hates his adulterous ex-wife, but seems to love his daughter just right.
Detective Brodie’s investigations show that the poor surviving family members of these old family disasters are variously pathetic, delusional, horny, or hiding something. Lavender, old lace, and middle-age underwear make an appearance. A clue is provided by a cloistered nun. International intrigue seems possible. (“And when you see your mother,” Brodie tells his daughter at one point,“it might be a good idea not to show off your Russian.”)
It’s all tied up in the end, of course. The only question left is whether quite so much genre-related play belongs in a novel that is still at core about lack of love, and absence of love, and other kinds of absence. Normally not, perhaps, but this kind of abundantly inclusive, smartly rendered, somehow plaintive yet rollicking work is also not normally produced.