The Leeds Library Monday Book Club: Part 1, October 2019, by Richard Smyth
Case Histories, Kate Atkinson (2004)
We launched the Monday night Book Club at the Leeds Library with a deep dive into a tale of murder, abuse, deceit and country-and-western music. It was a complex story that we all found engaging, even if it left us with more questions than answers.
Case Histories is the first of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie detective novels. Brodie, we agreed, is very much more in the Philip Marlowe class of private eye (getting slugged, lied to and seduced before arriving at the truth more through sheer weary persistence than any flash of insight) than the gather-the-suspects-in-the-drawing-room type. Despite his history – ex-military police, ex-Detective Inspector – Caroline found him a bit wimpy and ineffectual; we were all a bit frustrated by how shambolic he was. David admitted to finding the revelation of Brodie’s own haunting childhood trauma somewhat wearisome – why, he wondered, must modern characters always be defined by their past sufferings?
It was David who hit on the best term for Atkinson’s storytelling style in this book: overcaffeinated. This is a book rich in digressions, red herrings, asides and interruptions. In a different kind of book I might have found this engaging; in what is (ostensibly) a detective novel, I could have used a little streamlining. We speculated whether an editor might have stepped in, were Case Histories the work of a less celebrated author. But of course it’s also possible that Atkinson, playing around with the idea of ‘literary’ and ‘detective’ genres, wanted it this way.
Pat found most of the characters hard to warm to; I think we all felt that, with a few exceptions, they were a rum bunch, sometimes broadly drawn – the clashing sisters Amelia and Julia, for instance – and in some cases very one dimensional (no-one was much impressed by the snooty villain with his eye on an inheritance who is parachuted in halfway through).
None of us were familiar with the rest of the Brodie books, and we agreed that, based on how Jackson’s story wrapped up, Case Histories read rather as though Atkinson hadn’t banked on writing a sequel. Perhaps she hadn’t. We were all, in any case, intrigued enough to want to know more. But there’s no time for that, as our next meeting, on November 11th at 5.30pm, will see us pitched into the turmoil of the French Revolution, via Hilary Mantel’s 1992 novel A Place of Greater Safety. All are welcome – please do come along.