Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson

Jackson Brodie returns! Atkinson entered the list of my favorite authors with her first book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and each new book has only confirmed my opinion of her writing. This is her fourth book featuring now-retired private investigator Jackson Brodie. The first is currently being televised by Masterpiece, starring Jason Isaacs as Brodie.

To give some structure to what he calls his “semiretired” life, Brodie is criss-crossing Britain in search of his second wife, Tessa, who has absconded with most of the fortune he unexpectedly inherited. Or perhaps he is searching for a home. He is also making a point of visiting all of the Bettys Tea Rooms. “If Britain had been run by Bettys it would never have succumbed to economic Armageddon,” he muses. I've been to the mothership in Harrogate, and I agree. He is also “bagging the ruined abbeys of Yorkshire on his journey” which brought back strong memories of my first visit to Fountains.

Too much? Tessa, fortune, Bettys, abbeys—keep up! This is how I feel reading a Kate Atkinson book: as though she is laughing and dancing ahead of me down the path turning now and then to say Keep up! In most thrillers, the ever-accelerating action creates the drive that sweeps you through to the last page. With Atkinson, it is the pace of her mind that makes me feel like I'm in a Mini barreling blind down narrow, curved Yorkshire lanes. The tumbling allusions and half-quotations pile on top of each other—keep up!—and make me pay attention. Quick references to the Spice Girls, the laconic Captain Oates, Mother Goose, Paul Simon, Poussin (and from the Poussin, at least for me, it's only a short step to Brideshead and Castle Howard): I don't get all of the references, but enough to admire the agility and scope of Atkinson's writing.

I also admire her use of just the right words. For example, when Brodie's young son falls asleep on his father's lap “The soft, sandbag weight of his boy in his arms was disturbing.” Perfect! And the book is about children, given Brodie's accidental métier of searching for lost children. The story starts with Tracy Waterhouse, moving neatly between a murder in 1975 when she was just a WPC and the present day when she's retired from the force as a detective superintendent and heads up security at a shopping mall. Also in the mall is Tilly, an aging actress suffering from the beginnings of undiagnosed dementia, and Brodie who in a fit of chivalry has acquired a dog.

The title comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson which seems to have some obvious parallels with the story. Brodie, who has recently started reading Dickinson's poetry, does have a dog now and likes to start the day early: “It was good to get a march on the day. Time was a thief and Jackson felt he gained a small triumph by stealing back some of the early hours.” The deeper parallels lie within our understanding of the poem, one of Dickinson's more ambiguous ones. I've seen a variety of interpretations claiming that it's about death or fear of love or the constellation Orion. Maybe the poem is just playful, or maybe fear and danger lurk beneath the playfulness. All very appropriate for the further adventures of Jackson Brodie.

One thought on “Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson

  1. […] of chess pieces being cleverly—if somewhat obviously—manipulated. I’ve loved Atkinson’s books ever since stumbling across Behind the Scenes at the Museum. All the more disappointing then that A […]

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