Children, Dogs, and Sanity Come and Go at Will in Kate Atkinson's 'Started Early, Took My Dog'

For a certain type of reader, there are four brief syllables that, when encountered, bring a slight flush to one's cheek, an impulsive curl upward of the lips, and even, perhaps, a faint quickening of the pulse—Jackson Brodie.

The weathered, harried British private detective is hardly traditional hardboiled heartthrob material. He's adept with wisecracks, but the humor generally eludes whomever Brodie's speaking to. He likes his whiskey, but not too much of it. He's divorced and frequently falls for the wrong women, but he genuinely loves his daughter, Marlee.

As his latest adventure, Started Early, Took My Dog (Reagan Arthur Books), opens, Brodie has been on a long vacation driving around the English countryside touring the ruins of medieval abbeys and reading Emily Dickinson; his country music collection and "Jane," the voice of his satellite navigation system, are his sole companions. Would Philip Marlowe, even a retired and middle-aged Marlowe, ever be caught doing the same? Hardly.

It's that normalcy, that sense that Brodie really is just an average hapless Everyman shambling along through life who just happens to keep getting caught up in deadly situations, that has made him such an appealing character since his first appearance in Kate Atkinson's Case Histories seven years ago. He reappeared, with some fanfare, in 2006's One Good Turn and then 2008's When Will There Be Good News? The BBC is now making Case Histories a miniseries, so Brodie could soon become a legitimate physical heartthrob.

Yet by the end of Started Early, Took My Dog, this reader found herself beginning to wonder if there can indeed be too much of the good thing that is Jackson Brodie. The novel is classic Atkinson—smart and literary, dark and dreary, full of mediations on the good and evil of which everyone is capable—but something is missing.

Atkinson stumbled into the British literary world in 1995 as a relative unknown, winning the prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year award for her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. It is a weird and haunting book, interweaving the themes of dead and missing children, unhappy relationships, and dark, mysterious secrets that have since become Atkinson's stock in trade. Human Croquet, which followed two years later, was even weirder and even darker, and the title of her 2000 novel, Emotionally Weird, says it all.

Atkinson's first three books were not mysteries in any conventional sense at all. There were plot twists and turns; secrets were unveiled; there were murders and disappearances and many, many lies. Her work was clearly influenced by elements of crime fiction, but the complicated narrative structures and unreliable speakers turned the mystery genre upside down. It doesn't really matter who did it or whether a crime was even committed, Atkinson seemed to being saying: These messy, complicated, weird, damaged people and situations—this is life, and it's unsolvable.

The same themes and ideas abound in the four Brodie novels, but they're tempered by the sane, unflappable detective. Which is to say, Brodie always solves his case (in some way or another), and there's always a resolution (even if it isn't as neat and tidy as a conventional mystery reader might expect). While Brodie can never solve the one mystery that consumes him—the 30-year-old murder of his teenage sister—he has become awfully adept at solving other people's decades-old crimes.

"His specialist subject on Mastermind would be looking for people. Not necessarily finding them, but half the equation was better than none. ‘Really you're looking for your sister,' Julia said. ‘You own dear grail. You're never going to find her, Jackson. She's gone. She's never coming back.'

"‘I know that.' Didn't make any difference, he would go on looking for all the lost girls, the Olivias, the Joannas, the Lauras. And his sister, Niamh, the first last girl (the last lost girl). Even though he knew exactly where Niamh was, thirty miles away from where he was at the moment, mouldering in cold, damp clay."

But in Started Early, Took My Dog, there are more found girls than lost ones. Brodie has a client who wants to find her birth parents, except they don't seem to exist. At the same time, retired police officer Tracy Waterhouse suddenly finds herself with a would-be adoptive daughter of equally uncertain parentage. At the heart of both narrative threads is the unsolved 1975 murder of a prostitute in Leeds, just before Peter Sutcliffe, aka "The Yorkshire Ripper," began his string of brutal killings in the region. Started Early, Took My Dog jumps back and forth between the present and 1975, painting a bleak picture of police procedure and privilege in the era.

Interspersed with this are the stream-of-consciousness memories of aging actress Tilly Squires. Mourning the end of her career and the children she never had, she takes a role as the mother of a police detective on a television drama. It soon becomes clear Tilly is in the first stages of dementia.

Atkinson's writing is masterful in Tilly's sections, but other than the character's part in a key (but brief) plot development, she doesn't seem to contribute much of anything to the novel as a whole. Yes, Tilly's dementia is a thematic counterpoint to the ways in which a lot of people lose their minds over the course of the book, but are so many pages of it necessary?

In the end the most disappointing thing about Started Early, Took My Dog is the sheer lack of urgency in Brodie's sections. They seem rote, by now: Brodie gets beat up by thugs; he gets robbed; he finds a dog; he discovers maybe there's more love in his heart than he once thought. He seems exhausted. Maybe Atkinson is exhausted by him?

And so one wonders if at the beginning of the next Brodie book—because the end of this one does seem to imply there will be at least one more—will all of this have gone missing again? Will he still be alone and lost and wandering and stumbling into cases far more complicated than he says he wants to take on? Will Brodie ever find his own narrative closure?

Atkinson being Atkinson, it seems unlikely that she'll ever leave things so tidy. But for our sake, I hope she'll also know when to let a beloved character go gently into dark British countryside.