Hard-boiled with a heart of gold what more do you want in a private eye? But Jackson Brodie, in Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog, is no stereotypical gumshoe. For one thing, the Yorkshireman reads Emily Dickinson, quoted in the novel’s title. A recurrent character in previous Atkinson novels, Brodie here shares a plot with the equally compelling Tracy Waterhouse, a retired Police Superintendent turned mall cop.
Atkinson’s wonderfully woven tale features more complex and credible characters than are often found in the murder mystery genre. And narrator Graeme Malcolm realizes them with pitch-perfect, understated brio befitting the grief, longing, jadedness, and cautious joy they variously express. While the characters all possess been-around-the block, self-mocking voices, Malcolm, while making each personality distinct, conveys the raw and secret sorrow that’s within them all underneath the cynicism.
Early in the story, Tracy acts on a radical impulse. Middle-aged and single, she takes a child actually purchases one from a criminal and abusive mother. Handing the mother a wad of cash intended for home renovations in exchange for a bedraggled 4-year-old girl, Tracy begins a fugitive life, instantly, unsentimentally mothering on the fly. She’s pursued, but not, as she assumes, for kidnapping, but because years earlier she investigated the murder of a prostitute before superiors took the case from her. That case featured the first of the novel’s many ‘lost children’: the prostitute’s son.
This same crime draws Brodie’s interest on behalf of a client seeking her biological mother. Forever haunted by the murder of his sister when he was a child, Brodie is aware of his penchant for lost girls and the women they have become, both professionally and in his failed marriages.
Meanwhile, there is a third central character, the elderly, increasingly senile actress, Tilly Squires, playing her last role on a TV soap and still mourning the baby she aborted decades ago, while under the spell of a rival actress ‘friend’. Malcolm movingly and without melodrama takes us afloat her streams of consciousness and stumblings for elusive words and wallets.
Atkinson’s plot threads back and forth between the 1970s and the present; Malcolm agilely indicates time changes with the subtlest of pauses and inflections. Shepherding us through the unraveling of the mystery, he lets us experience the palpable sense Atkinson conveys of the profound, unremitting consequences born of an abandoned or neglected child. But in the end, we also feel, as Dickinson notes, that hope can be “heard it in the chillest land, and on the strangest sea”. Elly Schull Meeks