Book Quote:

“Hope McMaster had pulled a thread and everything she had believed about the fabric of her life had started to unravel.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage (MAR 21, 2011)

Kate Atkinson has written a number of novels that feature ex-cop turned PI Jackson Brodie: Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There be Good News?, and now the fourth novel, Started Early, Took My Dog. I had read a total of ZERO novels in the series when I picked up Atkinson’s latest. This is a novel that can be read as a stand-alone, and although there were threads to the other stories, Atkinson’s novel is so very well-written, it’s not essential to begin with the first novel in the series.

Started Early, Took My Dog is ostensibly a crime novel, but to try and slot this excellent tale into such a neat and ultimately limiting definition is a mistake. While crimes take place, the emphasis is on the crimes that slip silently into simple everyday living: cruelty, casual violence, lying and possibly most importantly–failing to take a moral stand.

The book begins in 1975 with a horrendous murder. Two police constables are first on the scene to investigate a fetid smell emanating from a flat on the fifteenth floor of a rundown building. WPC Tracy Waterhouse “a big graceless girl only just off of probation, and PC Ken Arkwright, a stout white Yorkshireman” make a horrifying discovery that is not easily forgotten. As the novel plays out, Tracy Waterhouse never forgets the unsettling case in spite of the fact that her more-than-thirty-year career spans the killing sprees of some of Britain’s most notorious serial killers:

“They would both see the beginning of the Ripper’s killing spree but Arkwright would be retired long before the end of it. Donald Neilson, the Black Panther from Bradford, hadn’t been captured yet and Harold Shipman had probably already started killing patients unlucky enough to be under his care in Pontefract General Infirmary. West Yorkshire in 1975, awash with serial killers.”

The novel goes back and forth between 1975 and the present. Tracy Waterhouse is now retired from the police department and working as the head of security at a shopping centre. Tracy’s tale is intertwined with Jackson Brodie’s latest case–he’s been hired to track down the birth parents of an eternally optimistic New Zealander, Hope McMaster. Hope’s adoptive parents are dead, and curiosity leads Hope to hire Brodie. Armed with some bare bones information about Hope’s birth parents, Brodie discovers that nothing pans out, and while he heads into a dead end, he also slams into a long buried crime that involves West Yorkshire Police’s retired Detective Superintendent, the “butch old battleaxe” Tracy Waterhouse. Tracy’s years with the West Yorkshire Police have left her permanently scarred:

“Tracy had seen the worst and then some. She felt soiled by everything she had witnessed. Filth, pure and simple. Massage parlors and lap-dancing clubs at the soft end and at the other end the hardcore DVDs of people doing repugnant things to each other. The unclassified stuff that scrambled your synapses with its depravity. The young girls trading their souls along with their bodies, the bargain-basement brothels and saunas, sleaziness beyond belief, girls on crack who would do anything for a tenner, anything. Arresting girls for soliciting and seeing them go straight back on the streets; foreign girls who thought they were coming to work as waitresses and nannies and found themselves locked in sordid rooms, servicing one man after another all day; students working in “gentlemen’s clubs” (ha!) to pay their fees. Free speech, liberal do-gooders, the rights of the individual—as long as it’s not harming anyone else. Blah, blah, blah. This was where it got you. Rome under Nero.”

Tracy Waterhouse is a marvelous creation, and when the novel moves back between the present and 1975, we enter a time warp of attitudes–some of which do not significantly change with the passage of time. Tough female coppers are still either dykes or “lezzies” and prostitutes are still unsympathetic murder victims–women who “ask for it.” When Tracy joined the police force, she was there essentially to hold hands with women victims and pass the box of tissues, and while female detectives are no longer seen as fluff, neither are they seen in any sort of flattering light; they simply fall into a different, unpleasant stereotype:

“When Tracy was on the force her fellow officers—male and female—all assumed she was a dyke. She was over fifty now and way back when she’d joined the West Yorkshire Police as a raw cadet you had to be one of the boys to get along. Unfortunately, once you’d established yourself as a hard-nosed bitch it was difficult to admit to the soft and fluffy woman you were hiding inside. And why would you want to admit that anyway.”

I read a fair number of crime novels, and Started Early, Took My Dog is superior for its characterizations and the depth of the issues involved. This is not a simple PI procedural, or even a mystery that needs to be unraveled. Instead this is the story of several characters who are forever shaped by the decisions they made in a split-second moment. On one tier, there’s Tracy Waterhouse who’s haunted by an image of a starving child, and Jackson Brodie who’s haunted by the murder of his only sister, but there are many second tier characters who’ve either stood by and allowed terrible acts to occur or who’ve made poor judgments that have haunted them for decades. Atkinson takes a generous approach to all of her flawed characters, and in some cases at least, the characters have opportunities for redemption.

As a series character, Jackson Brodie possesses the requisite interest for a return visit. This novel shows him maturing and coming to some realizations about both his past and his present. Threads are left open for the fifth novel in the series, but until that one sees the light of day, I have some catching up to do with the other Jackson Brodie novels.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 263 readers
PUBLISHER: Reagan Arthur Books (March 21, 2011)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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March 21, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Noir, Reading Guide, Sleuths Series, Theme driven, United Kingdom, y Award Winning Author

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