In three previous novels, Kate Atkinson has creatively played with the conventions of the mystery genre through the character of private investigator Jackson Brodie. Now, in STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG, she continues to broaden the genre's possibilities while exploring character, coincidence and interconnection --- of lives and themes.
The book opens with a chance encounter at a shopping mall in Leeds, an industrial city in northern England. Tracy Waterhouse, a recently retired police detective now working as the head of security for the shopping center, spots an old acquaintance screaming at a young girl and hauling her through the mall at breakneck speed. On a whim, Tracy offers the frazzled mother an envelope stuffed with cash in exchange for her daughter. The woman --- who has never been known for her moral scruples --- seems grateful to see the last of the child. But soon Tracy realizes that she may have stepped into a situation that's more than she can handle --- especially when she starts being followed by a mysterious gray car and threatened by burly thugs.
Witness to this bizarre exchange are Tilly, an elderly actress whose growing senility is creeping up on her, and Jackson, who has come to Leeds in part to investigate the origins of his client, a New Zealand woman who was adopted at an early age and whose attempts to research her birth parents have resulted in more questions than answers. Jackson soon discovers that he's not the only one researching a 30-year-old case. And as his investigation broadens, readers come to see the connections --- both thematic and actual --- between the investigation and the stories of others (Tracy included) whose paths he intersects.
How Atkinson reveals these connections --- and develops richly complicated characters --- is a brilliant piece of plot development. Bouncing back and forth between the 1970s and the present day, shifting rapidly among her primary characters, the novel is like an enormous, endlessly delightful puzzle. She includes the requisite detective-fiction elements --- red herrings, chase scenes, unsolved crimes --- but density and complexity of character and theme are always at the forefront. Jackson is both competent and clueless; his endearing relationship with a rescued dog known as The Ambassador (a parallel to Tracy's bargain) is comic and touching, as is Jackson's new-found appreciation of Emily Dickinson's poetry ("Split the Lark --- and you'll find the Music, / Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled. What kind of a woman came up with an image like that? Jackson felt pretty sure that Emily Dickinson didn't wake up hung over, with a strange man in her bed.").
Children who are lost (in more ways than one), adults who want to save them but don't know how, the broad swathes of gray that lie between the black and white of moral judgments: these are Atkinson's concerns, and they become the readers' as well. STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG is a tremendous novel --- as enjoyable for its mystery plot as it is for its ideas, as funny as it is heartbreaking.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 4, 2011