CSI: Cambridge

Suffice it to say that in a kidnapping situation, I would be a hot mess. I mean, not a situation where I was kidnapped, in which case I’d pull a Bette Midler in Ruthless People and spend my isolation losing weight to aerobics shows and befriending my captors, but a situation where someone I know, or someone close to me, was kidnapped. I don’t deal well with uncertainty, and the idea of wondering whether my sister/daughter/dog was dead or not seems far worse than simply knowing it for a fact. Already prone to hermititude, I suspect I’d be one of those people who stops showering and starts wearing the same sweatpants every day. I’d paper over my guest bedroom with maps and crime scenes photographs, held together by that red bulletin board ribbon you only see in police shows. I’d almost assuredly start talking to myself, and I would definitively hire a private detective, who I would without question drive totally insane.

Which brings me to Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories. Dubbed “literary crime fiction,” the novel revolves around retired cop and private detective Jackson Brodie, who finds himself at the center of a run of major cases after years spent trailing cheating wives and looking for lost pets. Among the mysteries to be solved is the 30-year-old disappearance of an eight-year-old Olivia Land, whose sisters Amelia and Julia, now quirky spinster types, hire Jackson to reopen the case after they discover a long-lost stuffed animal Olivia had been holding on the night of her death. There’s also the 10-year-old murder of a young Laura Wyre, whose killer has never been found. Then we have Michelle, who killed her husband in cold blood; and Binky, who’s convinced her cats are being stolen, and Jackson himself, who can’t seem to catch a break in his personal life. All in all, there’s a great deal of uncertainty to be dealt with, and it’s safe to say I have zero interest in ever pursuing a career in police work. 

Although a crime novel, Case Histories is as much a series of character studies, and Atkinson goes into more detail on each of her dozen protagonists than I would have expected from a book in this genre. That information, of course, proves relevant as she unravels the “whodunit” elements of the book, a wrapping-up that’s executed with pleasantly minimal fanfare, as opposed to overblown “Aha!” moments. But more than anything, those details give the novel depth, and in some sense pull you away from the procedural elements of the plot and more into its inhabitants. Who are these people? How have their lives been affectedβ€”ruined, evenβ€”by the tragedies in their past? How might they have been involved in said tragedies? To a degree, this is where Jackson comes in. His professional relationships with his clients, through which he quite literally questions their motives, become blurry as he too gets involved with each case. We as readers are sucked into those human vignettes almost in tandem.

So what are today’s conclusions? First, Case Histories is a great piece of fiction, a fun, fast read perfect for the beach or pool or wherever it is you have to go to justify skipping over those “winter” booksβ€”tombs like Gravity’s Rainbow and Underworld. Additionally, if you’re a friend of mine, and you happen to get kidnapped, please make every attempt to send word that you are either a) alive and well or b) dead, so that I won’t have to sit at home and go slowly insane. (After all, no reason both of our lives should be ruined by your misfortune.) And finally: Just in case you aren’t able to send word of your demise, just in case I am in fact destined for an isolated life of cold case obsession, I should probably look into getting an apartment with a guest bedroom.


TITLE: Case Histories
——————– ———————————-
AUTHOR: Kate Atkinson
PAGES: 310 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Behind the Scenes at the Museum, One Good Turn
SORTA LIKE: Tana French
FIRST LINE: “How lucky were they? A heat wave in the middle in the school holidays, exactly where it belonged.”

3 thoughts on “CSI: Cambridge”

  1. I picked this up based on your post and read it in just two sittings. It’s the first book in a while to totally suck me in. The characters are fantastic and the writing generally strong enough that I had no problem overlooking the big coincidences that tied everything together. I’m looking through your older posts now to decide what to buy next.

    1. Hooray! If you like that type of novel, I’d highly recommend Tana French for the whole detective vibe. If you’re looking for another vignette-style book, The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman is great.

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