Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Mysterious doings

I loved Kate Atkinson's Case Histories but lost track of her somewhat until picking up Started Early, Took My Dog. The brilliantly interwoven characters, psychological depth, and handling of the various puzzles in it are enough for three books by lesser authors. Here's a passage. Ex-cop Tracy has just impulsively rescued a toddler—it seems permanently—from an abusive caretaker.
She gave the napped kid a bath. A lot of grime but no bruises, no obvious sign of damage. Skinny little legs and arms, thin shoulder blades that were like wing nubs. A noticeable birthmark, tattooed by some tiny misreading of the genetic code on to the kid’s forearm. The birthmark was the shape of India, or was it Africa? Geography had never been Tracy’s strong point. Any distinguishing marks? A seal of ownership stamped on the skin for ever. A stigma. Maybe there was a way of removing it. Laser treatment perhaps.

  It was like being put in charge of a Ming vase, terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

Courtney sat passively while Tracy soaped and rinsed her, untangled the scrawny plaits, carefully washed her hair and then wrapped her in a towel and lifted her out of the water. Tracy hadn’t appreciated just how small a kid really was. Small and vulnerable. And heavy. It was like being put in charge of a Ming vase, terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. Thank God Courtney wasn’t a tiny baby, Tracy didn’t think she would have been able to cope with the nerves.
Tracy’s newly acquired house had last been refurbished some time in the early eighties – hardly the pinnacle of style in decor – and the bathroom suite was a sludgy avocado, the colour of Shrek. Tracy had watched all three Shrek DVDs on her own. If you had a kid you could watch cartoons, go to the pantomime, visit Disneyland, without feeling like a pathetic loser. Just the sight of the small, naked body sitting in her own snot-coloured bath had almost moved her to tears. She was surprised to find (let alone explain) such deep wells of primal, untapped emotions inside the calcified shell.
‘Just a sec, pet,’ she said, perching a towel-swaddled Courtney on the bathroom stool. She raked through the bathroom cabinet and found a pair of nail scissors. ‘Just tidy you up a bit,’ she said, taking a lock of the kid’s limp hair and snipping it off. Felt like a violation, but it was just hair, she told herself.
She helped Courtney into the new Gap pyjamas and said, ‘Just pop into bed, pet,’ and felt her heart moved all over again when Courtney obediently scrambled into bed, lay on her back and pulled the covers up to her chin. Christ, you could get a little kid to do anything, you just told them and they did it. Horrifying....
Hot chocolate, she decided, her own idea of a treat. When she came back with a mug for each of them she found Courtney sitting up in bed with the contents of her little pink backpack spread out on the thin Ikea duvet. It seemed she had a collection of totemic objects, their significance known only to their small owner:

a tarnished silver thimble
a Chinese coin with a hole in the middle
a purse with a smiling monkey’s face on it
a snow globe containing a crude plastic model of the Houses of Parliament
a shell shaped like a cream horn
a shell shaped like a coolie hat
a whole nutmeg

‘Quite a treasure trove,’ Tracy said. The kid looked up from her wampum and stared inscrutably at her and then, for the first time since Tracy bought her, Courtney smiled. A beatific sunbeam of a smile. Tracy beamed back, a bubble-burst of mixed emotion – ecstasy and agony in equal, confusing measure inside her – rising in her chest. Jesus. How did parents manage with this kind of stuff on a daily basis? She found herself blinking back tears.
One thing I did NOT like in the book was that PI Jackson Brodie got majorly beat up. From mysteries by Dashiell Hammett through Sara Paretsky, why is it that detectives almost always get worked over? Enough! On a more positive note, don't miss the "Pick Your Poison" section of our website, with 7 pages of mysteries to choose from at 15% off when you buy 3 or more.


  1. I am really interested in reading Case Histories first, Stephen King called it "the best mystery of the decade."

  2. "Case Histories" is one of the best books I've ever read...EVER...and I've been reading and loving books for 50 years now! "When Will There Be Good News?" is also wonderful, as is "Started Early, Took My Dog".

  3. Reading this, now! Love it. Love the language, the characters and the plot.