The prolific Kate Atkinson once again shows herself to be a master at crafting literary mystery with Started Early, Took My Dog. Unlike many mysteries, where the action is plot-driven (characters conveniently appear to carry things along), Kate Atkinson uses murder and mayhem to flesh out her characters and the dastardly crimes that define who they are and what they're capable of.
Her characters are quirky, snarky, flawed, and world weary - not an archetypal hero to be found among the lot. They ponder the wisdom of past choices they've made as well as those they are currently dealing with. In some cases, the decision to take action or to not must be made in mere seconds, and the fateful dilemmas in which they find themselves bring to mind the saying "timing is everything."
As circumstances unfold, characters continue to gain three-dimensionality. This is achieved not only by seeing what they do and listening to the constant stream of musings that fill their heads, but by the use of rich expository detail throughout:
A digital clock by the side of the bed told him it was five thirty. In the morning, he assumed. Winter or summer it was the time he woke at, thanks to his body's own internal alarm clock, set a long time ago by the army. Up with the lark. Jackson didn't think that he'd ever seen a lark. Or heard one for that matter. Split the Lark - and you'll find the Music, / Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled. What kind of a woman came up with an image like that? Jackson felt pretty sure that Emily Dickinson didn't wake up with a hangover, with a strange man in her bed.
Jackson Brodie, the retired police detective protagonist who has appeared in three prior books, provides one of the three primary points of view used to carry us along. This is very much an ensemble piece comprised of unique and different characters, their lives intersecting sometimes knowingly, sometimes not.
However, they do share one common attribute: a stiff-upper-lip fashion of facing life's muddy waters. Not a "woe is me" escapes their lips, not a wimpy whine to be heard. And so in a strange way, we are inspired by this motley crew. Each speaks with a sharp, observant and witty voice. Even Tilly, the aging bewigged actress whose life story interweaves throughout, has astute and wily things to say, though her words tumble out in disjointed ways, her grasp on reality slowly slipping away in a descending haze of dementia.
Last but not least there is Tracy - lonely, valiant, true of heart - whose impulsive action sets her on a path that will change her life forever:
Something gave inside Tracy. A small floodgate letting out a race of despair and frustration as she contemplated the blank but already soiled canvas of the kid's future. Tracy didn't know how it happened. One moment she was standing at a bus stop on Woodhouse Lane, contemplating the human wreckage that was Kelly Cross, the next she was saying to her, 'How much?'
As the body count begins, this adventurous tale involving neglected children, mistreated dogs, and murders - both past and present - moves round-robin-like through the eyes of these alternating characters. Stay sharp! The plot is full of suspects. The multitude of mysteries holds intriguing details and offers up many delectable clues. This is a book to be read fully awake or one runs the risk of missing small puzzle pieces.
Started Early, Took My Dog brings to life characters whose foibles and follies result from the longing to be needed, loved, and connected to others. It is the wistfulness of their yearnings that makes them so appealing. And in the end, with some story lines neatly resolved and others left open, which feels rightly fitting, it is the idea that we are defined by our past, and we carry the baggage of it forward, that makes this such a lively, entertaining yet poignant read. One can only hope that the future will hold more Jackson Brodie stories and that we are once again allowed to jump on board for the ride.
This review was originally published in May 2011, and has been updated for the October 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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