Imagine sitting in a crowded movie theater, surrounded by people so engaged in the film that each face remains still and fixed on the screen. A few sniffles replace the crunching of popcorn. The screen is dripping with drama. The protagonist lies gravely ill and dying, perhaps; or a woman leaves a child, never to return. Amid the quiet plucking of a forlorn guitar, someone in the movie makes a joke. The tension that had been building behind the muscles of your face releases in a small, explosive laugh. Laughter flutters through the audience like a cool breeze in summer. The humor is relieving, but only deepens the moment and acknowledges our all-too-human muddle of complexity.
Humor could easily be considered the stepchild of tragedy, but when it comes to the films we watch and the books we read, we tend to pick one, to “genre-fy”. Kate Atkinson’s Case Historiesis a Mystery, but rarely do Mysteries strike the tenuous balance between comedy and tragedy so well. Atkinson uses carefully placed humor with dashes of sadness to create a rise and fall rhythm that fits naturally with our own emotional fluctuations. In the meantime, we are witness to three compelling stories, braided together through a Private Investigator involved in each:
Case History no. 1, 1970: Four sisters live with a drained, conflicted mother and a reclusive Mathematician father. One night, two of them, Amelia and Olivia, decide to pitch a tent in the backyard. When Amelia wakes early the next morning, Olivia, the youngest at five and the favorite, is nowhere to be found. She’s never seen again.
Case History no. 2, 1994: An overprotective, overweight widower convinces his daughter, Laura, to take a job at his office instead of at a pub. On her first day of work, a madman in a yellow golf sweater barges into the office boardroom, takes aim at a colleague, then sears through Laura’s carotid artery. She dies immediately, and her father is left with the burden of asking why.
Case History no. 3, 1979: A woman, pregnant too young, succumbs to passionless marriage for a child she cannot seem to love. She controls her life through cleanliness and perfectionism, but finally loses control.
If any of these scenarios intrigue you, Atkinson has already done the easiest part of her job. While I am not the author of any Mysteries (unless book reviews count), I venture to say that devising a tantalizing, teasing premise is the simplest part of the process. Those of us who claim any grain of creativity, or psychological understanding, can anticipate what makes us curious as a culture.
Case 1? The mystery is maddening in part because of where Olivia was: safe in a suburban backyard, too young to run away, and too old not to know to cry for help. Legs too short to go far, but too far gone to be found. Parents can relate to the failure of protective instinct, in a situation impossible to understand. Case 2? Cold irony mixes with seemingly random, inexplicable violence. We react to the part of us that fixates on mail bombers, nighttime stalkers, and lunatics, frightening in their unpredictability. Case 3? Many of us respond to the secret fear that we won’t realize what we’re capable of until it’s too late.
The setup of a mystery is cake; the execution, done well, is brilliance. Mysteries are built on the tingling, dangling anticipation they create; the exquisite suspension of our need-to-know trumped by our need-to-find-out. Unfortunately, a perusal of the Mystery section of the average bookstore leaves little room for brilliance. The occasional gems, like Case Histories , tend to be crowded out by shiny, embossed serials in which even the recurring characters seem bored. Whodunit? Who cares? That is, who cares unless there’s true humanity woven between each clue?
This humanity comes through since Atkinson allows for each insecurity, detail, and nerve to lay exposed. While some lumber through such a process, she demonstrates a notable efficiency in reaching the core of each of her characters’ motivations. Her succinctness lets her dive into the inner lives of most characters without becoming confusing. For instance, the first chapter realistically details the personalities of four girls and a couple; the relationships between them; the sensitive background of the marriage; and what happens to Olivia. By the end of those nineteen pages, I felt securely drawn into the family, and had already begun to understand the characters well enough to make sense of what continued to unfold from that point.
The author’s willingness to be intimate with the reader only helps the process of revealing the mysteries, and the way they connect. True, this intimacy doesn’t always work. The banter between two of Olivia’s sisters (central to the book) can get annoying at times. Eloquence is sometimes sacrificed for readability. However, Case Histories is a strong, quick, satisfying, and often profound read that defies a stifling genre. Like the best films, it kept me alternately joyful and grievous, one nerve between tears and titillation. In this book, “Whodunit?” is, by far, the least interesting question to ask.
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