Reading while commuting has its dangers. Kate Atkinson’s fourth installment of the complex, compulsively readable Jackson Brodie mysteries, Started Early, Took My Dog caused me to miss my BART stop last week, leaving me sheepishly backtracking, book in hand.
Jackson, retired from the police force, has gone into private detective work. He’s been asked by one Hope McMaster to locate her birth family. His digging upsets several uneasy consciences, many of them current and retired members of the police force. (Scotland Yard scandal, anyone?) The year 1975 surfaces repeatedly, when a serial killer dubbed “The Ripper” targeted prostitutes.
One victim, Carol Braithwaite, elicits particular anxiety. Depending on who is asked, Carol had one child, possibly two. But to ask is to invite trouble, and Jackson finds himself in the sorts of pickles—none very pleasant—that he’s encountered in the past three Brodie adventures. He has more of a role in Took My Dog than he did in 2010’s When Will There Be Good News? but he remains a lone wolf, save the acquisition of the title’s dog, a Yorkshire Terrier bearing the outsized moniker The Ambassador.
Jackson’s investigation brings him into contact with another retired police officer, Tracy Waterhouse. Like Jackson, Tracy is a loner who finds retirement unbearable. She’s taken work as head security officer at a mall, where her large build and formidable manner invite unkind commentary she is all too accustomed to hearing. Tracy is a big, strong woman who likes a good meal with a couple cans of Becks.
Once upon a time, she might have enjoyed male companionship, but the combination of physical brawn and mental toughness inculcated by police work put men off. This outwardly formidable woman is, to use her word, actually rather “fluffy” within. But strength and clarity of mind prevail. She works hard. She hires the Polish Janek to make improvements on her home. She takes uplifting, edifying vacations amongst English historical monuments.
And then she buys four-year-old Courtney off a prostitute known and despised to the police force, the foul-mouthed, drugged-addled Kelly. She encounters Kelly in the shopping center, screaming into a cell phone and literally dragging little Courtney off her feet. Tracy offers Kelly cash intended to pay off her kitchen remodel, and finds herself in possession of a quiet child seemingly unmoved by the worst in life.
Tracy is astonished at herself. Fearing the authorities will come to claim Courtney, she sets about creating an entirely new life for “Imogen” and “Lucy”. This is easier than one might think. Her work in the police force and contacts with con men come in handy.
As in all Atkinson stories, a constellation of characters whose parts initially seem like walk-ons contribute much. There is Matilda “Tilly” Squires, an aging actress rapidly losing her mind to dementia, struggling to play her role on Collier’s, a detective show whose unreality goads Jackson but amuses Tracy, a great television watcher. Jackson’s former paramour, Julia, has the occasional role of a forensic pathologist on the show, a wildly amusing bit of (mis)casting for readers familiar with the ditzy actress. Barry Crawford, a police officer who worked with Tracy and now faces retirement himself, cannot escape the Braithwaite past any more than social worker Linda Pallister, former hippie turned Born-Again Christian. Neither can reporter Marilyn Nettles, now penning cheap romance novels.
Nobody who had any contact with the Braithwaite case emerged unscathed. But nobody wants to say much, either.
Atkinson’s signature macabre humor is alive and well in Took My Dog. Jackson, contemplating his ebullient client Hope, who lives in New Zealand and texts him with a surfeit of exclamation points, realizes:
“He had always thought of New Zealanders as a gloomy lot—the Scots abroad—but Hope seemed as happy-clappy as you could get. Of course, much of Jackson’s information about New Zealanders came from watching The Piano.”
When Janek startles Tracy, on day two with Courtney, she introduces the child as her niece, adding nervously that her sister is far younger than she. “Of course he had kids of his own, didn’t he? Poles probably really liked kids. Most foreigners liked kids more than the British did.”
This all makes for the kind of wildly entertaining ride we’ve come to expect from Atkinson. That said, Started Early, Took My Dog isn’t as complex as the other Brodie books, lacking some of the wildly dissociative asides fans know and love. There is less mention of Arcade Fire and more angry political commentary, particularly about Thatcherism and its attendant fallout (though it must be admitted we aren’t living in amusing times). The plot is less baroque, with fewer red herrings, crammed instead with the kind of cacophonous action found in lesser examples of the genre. Took My Dog offers much mayhem, from car-chasing thugs to crashes, beatings, and plenty of gore.
An acquaintance, seeing what I reading, exclaimed “It was so violent!” I can’t argue, though the violence is never meant to be gratuitous. If Atkinson has one point she hammers home, book after book, it’s the meaningless horror of murder and the loss endured by those left behind. Jackson’s beloved elder sister, Niamh, was raped and strangled at age 17. Her killer was never found. Nearly 40 years have passed, yet Jackson still mourns his sister.
Even the slightly batty Julia, spouting all manner of new-aged thought, has never recovered from the death of her infant sister Olivia at the hands of her eldest sister, Sylvia (see Case Histories, 2004). Violence is always ugly, death is always painful. Violence to women is endemic throughout the ages. In these times, the cycle of poverty, drug abuse, and violent death is on the upswing.
The ending is classic Atkinson: some situations resolve nicely, or like life, are resolved just enough for the main actors to move forward. Other strings are left dangling, though whether or not we’ve seen the last of Jackson Brodie remains to be seen. I suspect not.