I wrote about Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum back in April, a first novel I enjoyed so much that I snatched up this, more recent book when I spotted it in the bookstore. Case Histories fits into the mystery genre, having a series of crimes and a detective. However, it is unlike any other mystery I’ve read and, although they haven’t often shown up on this blog, I’ve read a lot of mysteries.
What I like about mysteries, beyond the fact that some of the best writing today can be found in them (just take a look at books by people like P.D. James, Ian Rankin, Iain Pears, and Arturo Perez-Reverte), is the puzzle. Yes, I’m one of those people. I like to do crossword puzzles, though not quite so much as I did in the days when my sons were still at home and we worked them round-robin on lazy Sunday mornings in front of the fire. My sons are now trying to convert me to cryptic crosswords, but I haven’t yet done enough to recognise the patterns and cues; finding a single answer is cause for major rejoicing, and I still remember the astonished pride with which I unraveled my first clue. (“Trainee pilots tie shoes”: L+aces=laces. Okay, I never said it was a hard one.)
Atkinson’s book is not so much about the puzzle, though there are questions to be answered and deaths to be understood, as it is about the emotions. She breaks what I never before realised was a cardinal rule of mystery-writing: don’t linger too long on the grief; get busy building the resolution. No, the losses here are wrenching, and continue to distort lives decades later.
In Case No. 1, a family goes to sleep in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood and wakes up to a disappearance that changes each of their lives forever. Case No. 3 takes us inside the life of a young woman trapped by a too-quick marriage, rural isolation, and a demanding baby (whom she refers to as “the bug”), all of which combine to create the kind of desperation that leads a fox to gnaw off its own leg. Case No. 4 concerns the detective himself, and his family’s past. But it was Case No. 2 that sent me reeling: a widowed lawyer whose love for his daughter permeates his life, whose fear for her safety evokes practical defenses, such as cautioning her against blind spots, and magical thinking, such as believing a train accident had filled the day’s quota of tragedy.
One of Atkinson’s gifts as a writer is the way she brings her characters to life—I could swear I knew Ruby Lennox from Museum personally, and in my dotage I’m sure I’ll get her mixed up with my real childhood friends—but participating so fully in their emotions means feeling their confusion and anger and desolation. In each of these cases, hurt, mourning with those left to carry on, I was reminded of Julian Green’s “a chasm coming between me and my life”, the way a single event can put a full stop on what came before and thrust you irrevocably into a new and alien reality, where your only hope is to reach a separate peace. Solutions are achieved here, peace even, but it is the grief that stays with me.