Every time I hear Kate Atkinson has a new novel on the way, I'm filled with delight. I look forward to many authors' books with pleasure and interest, but Atkinson is such a virtuoso that my brain starts fizzing like a glass of bubbly even before I crack the covers.
Started Early, Took My Dog does not disappoint. The English novelist's seventh novel, and the fourth about freelance troubleshooter Jackson Brodie, it is a witty, moving, suspenseful and always surprising story about the things we do for love.
Jackson, a former soldier and police detective, is as often a victim as a crime solver. In past books, his life has been turned upside down by an unexpected inheritance (Case Histories), by a grifter who steals most of that money (One Good Turn) and by a train accident that nearly kills him (When Will There Be Good News?).
So it's something of a relief as this book begins to see him enjoying himself by driving around Yorkshire, working in desultory fashion the case of an adoptee trying to find her birth parents but mainly enjoying the scenery and his newfound interest in poetry (which gives the book its title, courtesy of Emily Dickinson).
Then he happens on a man abusing a dog in a park. His protective instinct kicks in, and he decks the guy and takes the dog, a well-behaved little terrier named the Ambassador. Seems simple. It won't be.
Protective instincts also kick in for Tracy Waterhouse, a retired police detective now working mall security. She's a lonely woman but a good cop. When she sees Kelly Cross, a petty criminal and "scrag-end of a woman" she knows, mistreating a little girl at the mall, she gives in to a sudden impulse and offers Cross a large chunk of cash she happens to be carrying for the child. Cross hands the kid over and jumps on a bus.
Tracy knows instantly she's in trouble, but she finds herself bonding with Courtney, a laconic 4-year-old, as quickly as Jackson bonded with the Ambassador: "She was a small lumpy kind of kid but there was a spark of something in her eyes. Life perhaps. Cracked but not broken." Between kitting out Courtney with a pink fairy outfit she longs for and feeding her apparently boundless hunger, Tracy hardly has time to panic.
She also has little time to think about Tilly, an old woman she helped at the mall the same day. Tilly is Matilda Squires, an actor, in the area filming a TV detective series Jackson particularly dislikes. But she's suffering from dementia and increasingly unable to remember when she's acting and when she's not.
What do Jackson, Tracy and Tilly have to do with one another? Ah, that's the delight. Atkinson's books stake out their own territory on the border between mysteries and literary fiction. There are crimes in this book — notably Tracy's involvement early in her career with the investigation of a real-life serial killer case, that of Peter Sutcliffe, a.k.a. the Yorkshire Ripper, convicted of murdering 13 women — but Atkinson is just as concerned with crimes of the heart, and with the unexpected consequences of good intentions.
She layers plots and time periods with consummate skill, creating novels that work like elegant jazz improvisations, taking us onto amazing yet believable paths that eventually weave together into an even more astonishing result. Each separate plot in Started Early, Took My Dog plays in its own way with the same themes: lost children, lost parents, found families. Themes as old as storytelling, but Atkinson, as always, brings something fresh to them.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.