Doubleday, £18.99, 350pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Started Early, Took My Dog, By Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson began as a prize-winning literary novelist with Behind the Scenes at the Museum and has, like Michael Dibdin and Ian Rankin before, reinvented herself by using the tropes of detective fiction. She's just as serious and formally interesting as ever, only her novels featuring the ex-policeman Jackson Brodie involve unravelling a couple of murders. With their startling first chapters, appealing cast of familiar characters and meticulous observation of contemporary reality they read like Elizabeth George crossed with Elizabeth Bowen.

The fourth, Started Early, Took My Dog is about child abduction, and people who fall through the cracks of modern Britain unless somebody bothers to help. The narrative switches between the 1970s and today with dizzying, at times perplexing, skill. Tracy, its hefty heroine is, like Brodie, ex-police. As a young copper she found a starving, half-frozen child in a flat with his murdered mother. Tracy persists in asking questions, and the child disappears.

Haunted by this, she struggles against the toxic sexism worse than that depicted in Life on Mars, and when the book begins, makes one of those snap decisions by which Atkinson's characters change their lives. She buys an abused girl off the child's junkie mother. Days later, the mother is murdered, and Tracy and little Courteney are on the run.

Brodie, too, rescues a small dog, whose endearing nature makes him rather more restful companion than the irritating Julia, mother of Brodie's son (or, for that matter, Courteney.) Together they are hunting for the natural family of a young woman in New Zealand who has asked for Brodie's help.

Our hero has picked up a love of poetry which, like all literary coppers, makes him rather too much of a mouthpiece for his creator, but he's still game for a fight and a captivating hero. Brodie himself has lost his sister, possibly to the Yorkshire Ripper, and is searching for a con-woman. This gives us an excuse to criss-cross Yorkshire.

Inevitably, his path crosses Tracy's. One of the pleasures of the series is the way Atkinson brings people together, each unaware of the other's private dramas. It's a running joke that the summary of Jackson's life looks more dramatic than it is, in his view, because his near-death experiences and discoveries are nail-biting stuff. Yet the feelings, dilemmas, struggles and passions are what give the novel substance.

Less successful are the passages depicting the bent coppers at the heart of the plot, and an elderly actress, Tilly, who is descending into dementia. The novel is awash with metafictional asides and doppelgängers – there's even a second private detective called Jackson tailing Brodie – and Tilly's collapsing sanity makes this blurring between "fiction" and "reality" irritating.

Atkinson's detective novels capture the strangeness of modern times, and our supposedly atomised lives, with spiky wit, emotional intelligence and consummate cleverness. All her novels are about the choices that we make and the things we leave behind; about parenthood and the anguish that vulnerability brings. Above all, they scrutinise an England too few literary novelists seem to notice, or care about.

Amanda Craig's novel 'Hearts and Minds' is published by Abacus

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