Kate Atkinson's marvelous first novel, BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM, distinguished her as a gifted storyteller and a novelist to watch. Now, with her fourth work of fiction, CASE HISTORIES, Atkinson proves her mettle with a thoroughly engaging novel that is part thriller, part psychological study, and part consideration of the mysteries of fate.
The novel opens with three "case histories." First come the Lands, the four daughters of a remote, unlikable Cambridge math professor. The youngest, Olivia, is universally beloved. When she disappears from a tent during a backyard slumber party, none of the Land sisters will ever be the same.
The second case is that of Theo Wyre, a Cambridge solicitor who dotes on his younger daughter, Laura. He worries about her constantly: "He worried when she went out in a high wind that a piece of falling masonry might drop on her head, he worried that she would take a student flat with an unserviced water heater and die of carbon monoxide poisoning." That's why, when Laura takes a job in Theo's office during the summer before she is to start college, he's glad that he'll be able to keep an eye on her. Little does he know that what he imagines as the safest place for Laura will prove deadly.
Finally, we have the case of Michelle Fletcher, a young mother who feels trapped by her marriage and her baby: "she hadn't 'bonded' with the baby, instead she was shackled by it." Isolated and lonely, Michelle snaps when her husband makes the mistake of waking the baby up from a nap.
Some of these cases are more than thirty years old; others happened recently. Into the middle comes private detective Jackson Brodie, who, in the course of a few weeks, shifts from investigating adulterous wives and missing cats to pondering cases that the police had abandoned years ago. Jackson is having a personal crisis of his own, and he ends up getting personally and emotionally involved with too many of his clients.
As the story unfolds gradually, shifting perspectives and timelines expose connections that no one had anticipated. Careful readers will delight in these revelations (one character reveals her identity by using a particularly odd metaphor, for example). All along, the careful plotting of Atkinson's story and the loveliness of her language make for a novel that is as thrilling as any mystery but has depth beyond most other thrillers.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 7, 2011