Friday, 11 May 2012

Whimsical Whodunnit

A brilliant, engaging tale of murder and missing persons

"A murder mystery that solves itself" is the best way I can describe Kate Atkinson's Started Early, Took My Dog. The title comes from the first line from an Emily Dickinson poem, and the novel is set in modern-day England.

Kate Atkinson's “Started Early, Took My Dog”
Security chief and former policewoman Tracy Waterhouse is having a generally crappy day when she spies hooker Kelly Cross dragging a little girl by the hand. Driven by an impulse, she buys the child with money meant for the workman renovating her house. Two people witness the exchange: Jackson Brodie and an old woman called Mathilda Squires.

With Waterhouse's purchase of the little girl, the ball, as they say, starts rolling. And, as promised, all three will learn that "the past is never history and that no good deed goes unpunished."

Back in the late Seventies, when a Jack-the-Ripper-style serial killer was on the rampage, she and her partner found the child of a murdered woman at the crime scene, a boy who kept asking for his sister. Spirited away by a social worker, the child was never seen again.

Pieces of that puzzle start falling into place as the mystery of that years-old crime begins unravelling like a badly-knit sweater through the viewpoints of three protagonists: Waterhouse, who goes into hiding with Courtney, the girl she now 'owns'; Brodie, another former policeman and now private eye, who rescues an abused dog he names "The Ambassador" (hey, it was on the tag); and Squires, also known as "Tilly", an old actress on her way towards dementia hell.

The novel follows the main characters as they get inadvertently tangled up in the old murder and a possibly related cover-up. None of them appear to be driving the investigation, actively solving it and looking for clues.

Except Brodie, perhaps, but he's on another seemingly unrelated case. We explore their own pasts and how they came to be there. In between, milestones in the present storyline send us back thirty years ago, and towards the end, we finally see how it all happened, and how the loose ends get tied up so nicely.

The non-linear storyline works here somehow. Atkinson does it well, and also manages to stay, for the most part, out of sight. Little of her writing voice is evident... even though this is the first book of hers I've read, that's how it feels.

If there were any messages, morals and the like, I didn't notice as I read, teased on by a murder mystery made more brilliant and intriguing by splitting itself in parts and scattering them throughout three decades for me to find and put together.

Some may find the assembly part tedious and confusing, and it's not clear whether some pieces belong in the present or back in the past.

For me, the end result was satisfying enough that I didn't mind that the novel made me work a little. Nor did I care about the unanswered questions (like, who's Courtney and what's the story behind The Ambassador) once the puzzle was solved. Or did I just focus on the main puzzle itself and totally missed the clues to other little mysteries inside?


When you pick up this book, just open it, enjoy the puzzle-solving and forget what's between the lines. You can revisit the latter afterwards if you want to.

This review was based on an andvace reading copy. Book information is based on a more recent release.

Started Early, Took My Dog
Kate Atkinson
Transworld Publishers (2011)
493 pages
ISBN: 9780552776851


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