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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson (hardcover, $24.99)

Kate Atkinson's characters are often either victims or beneficiaries of kismet or deus ex machina. Bad guys get what's coming to them but in unexpected ways, and good guys are saved in unexpected ways. This characterizes Atkinson's Jackson Brodie books, and it is what makes her readers say, "Get outta here," in astonishment at some point in the book.

Let's talk about Jackson Brodie, the former police detective and current private investigator. It is his series, but in name only. He barely appears in one of the previous books in the series -- Case Histories, One Good Turn, and When Will There Be Good News? -- and his story is only one of the many tangled tales in the other books. Atkinson's gimmick is to create many stories that intersect at a later point -- in an unexpected way, of course.

Story #1: Tracy Waterhouse, just retired from the police force and now head of security at a shopping mall, rescues and then impetuously buys a young child from her abuser. With no family of her own, Tracy realizes that she has been aching for someone to love, and three- or four-year-old Courtney seems to be the cure.

Story #2: Jackson Brodie has been hired by Hope McMaster, a woman in New Zealand who was adopted in England when she was a very young child. The time has come to find out her true story. Jackson finds a link to the death of a prostitute right around the time Hope was adopted. Tracy Waterhouse, her ex-police partner, a social worker, and a former newspaper reporter all have pieces to the puzzle that Jackson must solve, but it's a comedy of missed opportunities for him to get in touch with these people, especially the women, or perhaps there's a subtle conspiracy involved.

Story #3: Tilly Squires is an elderly actress who is taking big steps into the world of dementia. She accidentally shoplifts, unintentionally cooks her roommate's dinner at three in the morning, and forgets she's in front of the camera when filming her part in a popular TV show. During some downtime, Tilly wanders into Tracy's mall and witnesses Courtney's mistreatment and subsequent rescue by Tracy. And sort of remembers it. Mirroring Tilly's awareness, her story drifts in and out of the book's narrative. There are amusing and sad stories of Tilly's past life and her current predicament, but there seems to be little correlation to what else is going on with Jackson, et al. It is easy to wonder what her story has to do with the others. However, references to her TV show pop up every now and then in the other stories, which is quite amusing.

In the background is the convoluted, ongoing story of Jackson's relationships with his ex-wives, girlfriends, and children.

Atkinson mixes humor with darkness, sadness with glee. She wends her dulcet way to her Shakespearean ending in which identities are revealed, mistakes are rectified, and karma swings its gavel to bless all with what they deserve.

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