Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson

Family skeletons and a man with a knife
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The Independent Culture

"His daughter was murdered 10 years ago and he can't get over it." "Why should he?" Offhand as it is, the question that the beggar Lily-Rose asks Jackson Brodie the private investigator is fundamental to this novel, as to all Kate Atkinson's fiction. Case Histories shows Atkinson preoccupied as ever with families and time. "Writing," she has been quoted as saying, "is the act of rescuing the past."

History, for Atkinson, consists of more history. In this, her fourth novel, the contemporary action is delayed by three flashbacks, to 1970, 1994 and 1979. In the first, Olivia Land, aged three, lies in bed in a room previously occupied in turn by Sylvia, Amelia and Julia, her older sisters. Mentioning them, Atkinson has to introduce their parents, Rosemary and Victor, and say how they came to marry though Victor was twice as old as his bride; and to explain that requires Victor's own history, including his mother's committal to a lunatic asylum in 1924.

Devotees of private-eye novels should be warned. This isn't one; not really. Jackson Brodie is certainly an authentic character: ex-policeman, ex-soldier, with a case history of his own, a beloved daughter, and tragic skeletons rattling in his head. He has a failed marriage, an overdeveloped sense of justice and an underdeveloped sense of self-preservation. But the momentum of the book, this continual sliding and tumbling backwards in time, rather debilitates the framing narrative. Jackson proceeds at a shuffle, pondering and blinking bemusedly at the incidental attempts on his life.

Also on Jackson's case-list are an air hostess suspected of adultery; the sister of a convicted killer attempting to locate a niece; and the man obsessed with the death of his daughter. Theo Wyre, a fat solicitor, is fat because Laura Wyre is dead. Theo has a desperate need to nurture, and now there's only himself to feed. Laura is dead because she was working in Theo's office the day a stranger in a yellow golfing jersey pulled out a knife. She had taken the job because she loved her dad; and her dad had wanted to protect her. All these bits of history Atkinson tells us with her customary emotional candour. The history of the man with the knife is, if you like, what she needs Jackson Brodie for.

Atkinson is always perceptive and engaging, and this time perhaps a degree less antic in her postmodern playfulness. Literary references - to Conan Doyle, Edith Wharton or Jilly Cooper - are still plentiful. Shakespeare pops up, as usual. No character in an Atkinson novel can hear the word "convent" without thinking "Get thee to a nunnery". But as the book goes on, there seem to be fewer of these fidgety parentheses, and a new and welcome sense of calm and assurance that it's tempting, if presumptuous, to identify with maturity.

The reviewer's latest novel is 'Finding Helen' (Black Swan)