Kate Atkinson doesn’t think she would make a very good crime novelist. “I don’t think I could write within the confines of a genre, even with the best will in the world,” she says, speaking by phone from her home in Edinburgh. “People keep telling me I’m a crime writer, and I do like crime fiction. But I don’t see myself as writing it. I’ve pointed out before that Dickens wrote about crime, and Dostoyesky wrote crime. But when I’m writing, I’m not conscious of that, and when I’m finished and people say I’m writing crime, I’m like, well, no.”
She has a point. There are indeed mysteries in her seven extraordinary novels. And the last four, including the just released Started Early, Took My Dog, have all featured Jackson Brodie, ex-cop turned private sleuth, And yet, none of these stories could easily be described as a whodunit or in any way action packed. In scope and purpose, they are much more daring than any run of the mill murder mystery or thriller. Their considerable charms lie elsewhere. And that, more than anything, may explain why, despite a raft of critical praise and a shelf of awards (she won England’s Whitbread Prize for her very first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum), she has never been a regular on the best seller lists. You could almost say she’s too good for her own good.
Started Early could change that. Without sacrificing any of the playful complexity that marks her previous work, the new novel manages to be more accessible, more immediately engaging. This has less to do with any effort on the author’s part to sell out than it does with her growing mastery over her material (Atkinson, 59, was a late bloomer, publishing her first novel when she was 43). Somehow, she manages to keep three distinct plot lines going at once without ever getting tangled up or diminishing the novel’s momentum. And here are characters as vivid as any she’s ever minted. There’s Tracy Waterhouse, a middle-aged Leeds mall rent-a-cop who buys a toddler from a drug-addled prostitute. There’s Tilly, an aging actress in the throes of Alzheimer’s whose brain is “like lace, delicate and full of holes.” And finally there’s Brodie, who’s hired to track down the parents of a woman now living in New Zealand, a job that will ultimately unearth another, darker crime a quarter of a century old.
All of them bump into one another at the outset, then go their separate ways for the course of the book, only to be haphazardly reunited in the closing pages. Coincidence plays a big part here and elsewhere in Atkinson’s fiction. Tracy finds a child. Tilly has lost one years before. Tracy unwittingly holds a piece of the puzzle Brodie is trying to solve. For good measure, there are two detectives in this story named Jackson. But all of these seeming connections are planted subversively, not to knit the plot together so much as to upend the conventions of genre, to remind us that we’re reading a story, something like life not but not life itself. Watching Collier, a television detective series in which Tilly has a role, Brodie decides it’s “crap,” because “real murder was disgusting. And smelly and messy and usually heartbreaking, invariably meaningless, occasionally tedious, but not this neat sanitized narrative.”
Readers do want more, they want those lives to go on. But Elizabeth Bennett does not live on beyond the page and have lots of children with Mr. D’Arcy.
There’s nothing neat or sanitized about Started Early, but no matter how many times Atkinson finds ways to remind us that we’re reading a made-up tale, she’s such a skillful storyteller that we forget her warnings within a paragraph. Almost against her will, she makes us believe what we’re reading. In part this is due to her playful but exact way with words, as when a suddenly alert character “meerkatted” to attention. It also has something to do with the sense of diffidence with which she approaches the world, a sense she shares with her recurring detective: “’I don’t understand,’ Jackson said. “He didn’t know why he didn’t get that sentence tattooed on his forehead.”
No one will ever accuse Atkinson of writing the same book twice—even the Jackson Brodie novels are radically dissimilar—but at the same time, it’s easy to see why her readers have remained devoted no matter what she wrote next (“No one demanded ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum II,’” she observes). All of her books are marked by an unslacking narrative drive. All of them resolutely refuse to indulge sentimentality. Atkinson is not one of those authors who thinks of the people in her books—or anyone else’s—as in any sense real. “These are just characters. Readers do want more, they want those lives to go on. But Elizabeth Bennett does not live on beyond the page and have lots of children with Mr. D’Arcy. You, the author, are using these people, which is an artifice. I’m quite harsh about that. The text is everything, and there’s nothing beyond the text. I think I’m no more manipulative than any other writer, but I’m quite conscious of that.”
But the main tentpole in her fictional world is memory—the stories we tell about our past, the way we select details, the telling ways we get things wrong. “I do have a lot of long-term memory. I can remember meals I had as a child. I can remember how things felt and smelled, how things looked. And those things feed your imagination and help you as a writer. So much of writing is about memory.”
“Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” a minutely observed chronicle of four generations of an English family, “is all about memory, of course. I had a huge amount of mail from people after that book appeared. Even now, I get letters from people saying, Oh, you remembered this and you remembered that. It seems to be a very important touchstone for people, that these things have not been forgotten. Even the tiniest, most meaningless things have been pinned down.”
In Started Early the demented Tilly has a moment of devastating clarity when she realizes that, “Reality itself was nothing. Everything was made out of words, once you lost the words you lost the world.” “I used to work with old people,” Atkinson says, “and I used to feel, what a waste these stories they had would be lost. I was like a vulture, collecting them, because I thought, if I don’t, those memories are just going to go into the void and never be recorded. And I think that’s something that writers feel, even when they’re making things up, like they’re rescuing something from the void.” Then she adds, with a self-effacing mockery worth of Jackson Brodie, “But I might be kidding myself.”
Malcolm Jones writes about books, music, and photography for the Daily Beast and Newsweek, where he has written about subjects ranging from A. Lincoln to R. Crumb. He is the author of a memoir, Little Boy Blues, and collaborated with the songwriter and composer Van Dyke Parks and the illustrator Barry Moser on Jump!, a retelling of Brer Rabbit stories.