Cambridge, England and former policeman Jackson Brodie finds himself, as a private investigator, involved in three seemingly unconnected, unsolved family murders spread over several decades. A compelling hybrid chock full of complex family and personal dramas alongside the mysteries of the past, Case Histories, on its publication in 2004, was described by Stephen King as the best mystery of the decade.
1970 and the youngest of four sisters, three year old Olivia goes missing in the middle of the night. A massive search reveals nothing. Several decades later, teenage Laura is brutally murdered in her father’s office by a maniac’s apparently random attack. So shocked, witnesses only recall his yellow golfing jumper. The third, but just a few years after the first, is the lesser ‘mystery’ – a murder was committed, the man’s wife was imprisoned and the baby daughter adopted out. But there’s some connection, somewhere. By the nature of Atkinson’s novel, that’s only too apparent.
But, strangely for a mystery thriller, the answers (and all are provided) are almost secondary to the narrative of the surviving family members as Brodie discovers connections and uninvestigated leads. He also has his own family problems – and there’s more than a suspicion that someone is out to kill him. It’s the characters themselves involved in the process of discovery and reveal that draws the reader into Case Histories.
The eccentric surviving Land sisters and the morbidly obese lawyer, Theo Wyre (father of Laura), along with Brodie himself, are the main focus in Case Histories. But the novel is populated throughout by characters, past and present, who come and go as they intersect, engage, influence the narrative. Witty and perceptive, Atkinson enjoys many of her characters – the Rubenesque, flirtatious bit-actress Julia Land; the batty, elderly snob, Binky Rain, who demands the attention of Brodie in a continual loss of one of her many cats; Julia’s older sister, an uptight Amelia. Yet, for all, loneliness and a lack of closure, past or present, pervades.
Case Histories dips in and out of time frames as Brodie’s investigative narrative develops – and there are inevitable overlaps of events as different perspectives or reference points unfold. There can be a lot to hold on to – but the beauty of Atkinson is that she tells her story well. Not all the threads work (unconvinced by the threats to Brodie’s life) but overall Case Histories is a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging novel.