A Kate Atkinson novel is usually so intricately constructed that even naming the incident that kicks off the story would unfairly spoil potential readers. Atkinson, who won the Whitbread Award for her novel Behind The Scenes At The Museum, has seemingly stumbled into a mystery series of four books, all featuring private detective Jackson Brodie, a man of tortured past and slightly less tortured present. His goal: combing England to find missing women, the better to make up for the loss of his sister long ago.
Started Early, Took My Dog isn’t as good as Case Histories, the first book in this ad hoc series, but Atkinson may never top that feat of narrative genius, where three separate plots revealed a series of common links that weren’t apparent on a first read. Started Early, meanwhile, tosses an equal number of seemingly disparate elements into its brew—a kidnapping here, Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe there—but the conclusion, while satisfying, doesn’t feel as perfectly wrought as those in earlier novels.
Still, there’s plenty to recommend here. Brodie—whose arrival on the scene in this book almost feels like dad coming home, rumpled, after a long day of work—is working his way through England in search of the origins of a woman named Hope, who was adopted in the ’70s and longs to find her birth family. But at every turn, Brodie encounters resistance, whether from files that turn out to have no real information, or social workers who curiously evade his questions. As he works the case, Brodie—who often finds the universe seemingly telling him that any pursuit of domesticity would be a bad idea—winds up with a small dog worming its way into his heart, though he has no idea what to do with it.
This could feel treacly, but Atkinson contrasts Brodie’s storyline with the much more serious story of Tracy, a shopping-mall security guard and former cop whose desperately lonely existence leads to her making an unusual deal that brings someone new into her life. It’s the kind of impulsive character moment Atkinson writes better than anyone working in the mystery form at present, the sort of dark thing a normal person might do if pushed far enough.
And while the plotting of Started Early isn’t as satisfying as Atkinson’s earlier mysteries, her character work remains terrific. If any other writer was in charge, Brodie might have had far too much emotional trauma heaped on his head over the course of these four books, but Atkinson somehow keeps the sheer number of terrible things that happen to him vaguely believable. (Perhaps that’s because Brodie, with his dour demeanor and dark humor, often seems like a fitting magnet for the world’s ills.) And she develops Tracy, an older woman named Tilly who’s suffering from dementia, and a young girl named Courtney into studies in the kinds of lost women Brodie doesn’t go looking for, those who slip through the cracks of society even if they keep showing up for work or school every morning. Started Early isn’t the best Brodie novel, but it might be the most heartfelt.