By Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown. 312 pp. $23.95
The population of Cambridge, England, is well over 100,000, but you wouldn't think it was any larger than a sewing circle from reading Case Histories, the most recent offering from British novelist Kate Atkinson. The characters in this pensive detective thriller can't help but impinge upon one another's lives, even though they may not be aware of one another's names.
The coincidences that bind them together would be ridiculously unbelievable in almost any other kind of novel; in a mystery, they're forgivable. And in a mystery where the dead bodies turn out to be far less important to the story than the survivors who mourn them, the coincidences seem almost mystical: markers of a grand, melancholy design built from the sorrows of anyone who has ever lost a loved one and never gotten over it.
Jackson Brodie -- private detective, Francophile, divorcé, overprotective father -- tools around Cambridge tailing wives who are suspected of adultery, work that only drives home the pain of his own recently dissolved marriage. When three new cases fall into his lap -- all officially "cold," as far as the police are concerned, and all brought to Jackson by relatives of the murdered or missing -- he's grateful for the work, as well as for the opportunity to immerse himself in something other than the bad memories he can't seem to shake.
The first case, brought by a pair of perpetually squabbling sisters, involves the decades-old disappearance of their baby sister, abducted from their backyard one night and never found. Amelia and Julia Land hire Jackson after discovering in their deceased (and despised) father's belongings a favorite stuffed toy that had belonged to little Olivia, a toy she was undoubtedly carrying when she went missing. Why would he have kept it a secret so long? And why did he have it in the first place? Jackson is charged with determining once and for all what the police couldn't, and what the sisters suspect: that their father took to his grave a dark and horrible secret.
The second case is brought by Theo Wyre, a retired lawyer who has made the unsolved, 10-year-old murder of his daughter the sole obsession of his sad and solitary life. Theo asks Jackson to find the man who walked into Theo's law office and stabbed his daughter to death after asking for Theo by name, then casually walked outside and into thin air. In Theo -- overweight, lonely, unable to get on with his life -- Jackson detects some spectral future version of himself, and his willingness to take on the difficult case bespeaks his fear of turning out the same way.
Just as Jackson is unearthing the first clues that will eventually unlock both secrets, into his office walks a third client: the sister of a notorious axe murderer who took her husband's life in front of their infant daughter and then took herself "off the grid" after serving her time in prison. Jackson assumes he is being asked to find the murderess and is surprised to learn that he's not: The client wants to learn the whereabouts of the now-grown infant, her niece, who has similarly vanished off the face of the Earth.
Atkinson's first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won England's Whitbread Award in 1995 for its lovingly told account of a dysfunctional middle-class English family; thanks to the strength of its characters, it's still a popular choice for book clubs in America as well as in the United Kingdom. In taking on detective fiction -- a genre whose circumscribed rules don't typically allow for too much character development -- Atkinson, whose inclinations are more literary, is taking a risk. No one ever wanted to know what Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade were "feeling." What's supposed to matter is plot, plot, plot.
Judged by that standard alone, Case Histories is a noble failure. The aforementioned coincidences that tie these characters together strain, and then exhaust, credulity; and anyone who can't connect the dots on their own and figure everything out by the book's last third needs to go back to Hammett 101 for a refresher course.
But if you read the novel instead as a multifaceted character study grafted onto the detective-thriller format, it's a rousing triumph, thanks in whole to Atkinson's boundless sympathy for her funny, pathetic, three-dimensional and fully human creations. Jackson Brodie wants to be Marlowe or Spade, but his tough-guy aspirations are continually subverted by his doting-father instincts. (He's forever fretting over his young daughter's choices in music and clothing, terrified that popular culture is priming her for lasciviousness.) The Land sisters, Julia and Amelia, are, respectively, a sexually free-spirited bohemian and her exact opposite, a Victorian prude whose overdue awakening comes as both a surprise and a relief. And Theo Wyre brings new poignancy to the word "heartbroken." When his poor, overworked, undernourished heart gives out on him after a stressful walk, he draws momentary comfort from the sight of a good Samaritan whom he takes to be his dead daughter, "come to take him home."
Breaking detective-thriller form, Case Histories is told from multiple points of view, reducing the burden on Jackson to "solve" the crimes for us and letting each character bloom in the light of the author's sharp, observant prose. That's something that the genre's hard-boiled forefathers would never have done; for them, the ratiocinative novel was a one-man job, and sympathetic characters just gummed up the works. Kate Atkinson, though, seems to have intuited that the most compelling mystery of all isn't necessarily whodunit, but rather howtodealwithit.
Jeff Turrentine is a Washington Post staff writer.