Sunday, January 8, 2012

Kate Atkinson gives Jackson Brodie a dog, and that changes everything.

I have read a few of Kate Atkinson’s superb crime novels that feature the elusive private investigator, Jackson Brodie. In this novel, she puts him through his paces once again, but this time she gives him a canine sidekick.

Started Early, Took My Dog

The title of this novel, Started Early, Took My Dog (371 pages, Back Bay Books, $14.99), comes from a haunting poem by Emily Dickinson. And indeed, it turns out that the hard-bitten Jackson Brodie has become something of a poetry lover since his last outing, and Emily Dickinson quotations keep popping into his head at the oddest moments. But like this first one, they are always appropriate.

Jackson finds himself with a dog after he challenges someone who was abusing the little charmer. No sooner has Jackson taken up the mutt, than he finds himself smitten. The animal is small enough to hide in a backpack, so Jackson takes him virtually everywhere he goes.

Jackson is in Yorkshire trying to find parents or at least some information about the background of a woman in New Zealand who is desperate to find out something about her past. When adoption papers and so on prove to be false, Jackson has a hard time finding a lead.

In the meantime, Tracy, a retired cop who is now working for security in a mall, finds herself grabbing a child in circumstances quite similar to Jackson’s. In this case, a small girl is being hauled around and abused by a woman who might be her mother. Tracy offers her a bagful of cash—she was planning to pay for home improvements—and walks away with the child. As soon as she does, however, she feels guilty and paranoid, and she tries to figure out what she can do to escape the law, of which, of course, she has been a part until now.

Tracy turns out also to be a link in the chain of what Jackson is trying to discover, but she doesn’t want any part of the past that he is trying to turn up. As they live their parallel quests, and almost confront each other, the reasons that they might be able to help each other are made patently clear.

It seems that Tracy was, much earlier, indirectly connected with the abduction of two young children, and her boss Barry and his bosses are far more deeply implicated. Something about that 1975 case has always bothered her, and now that she has abducted a child herself, even if it is for the child’s good, she has nightmares about what transpired in the past.

All these narrative threads do come together, rather spectacularly, in the end. But that’s not before Jackson’s dog has saved him from being ground up in a trash compactor and Tracy’s little girl has reminded her what it means to care for another human being.

There are many more minor but fully engaging characters, and Yorkshire, from Leeds to Whiby, comes beautifully alive in this finely crafted novel. I recommend it.

Kate Atkinson

Started Early, Took My Dog is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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