While the significance of genre may be totally up for grabs in 2016, there’s no doubt that mystery brings certain things to mind: a crime, a circle of motivated suspects, and a whip-smart detective who’s the only one (other than a really astute reader) who can put all the pieces together.
So it was with a sigh that I undertook this book club selection, because I am not a mystery reader (or so I told myself—and the book club). I’m not sure what caused this lifelong aversion, except maybe watching too many boring Scooby Doo cartoons (not even protofeminist sleuth Nancy Drew could pique my interest). Lucky for me, Case Histories is not a mystery. At least not a Scooby-Doo kind of mystery.
Case Histories resists any formulaic tendencies. Yes, it follows a hard-nosed, hard-living detective, Jackson Brodie, who solves crimes and gets into romantic entanglements. But Brodie is almost a minor character in the book, more the narrative glue that holds the novel’s three intertwined storylines together than the book’s defining personality.
For Kate Atkinson fans (and we are big ones), many of the book’s character tropes will be familiar—she clearly has her obsessions. Dead children? Check. Jealous siblings? Check. Ambivalent and unsatisfied mothers? Check. But her characters are so nuanced and fully formed that she avoids the formulaic or repetitive* on this count, too.
And while there are moments that Atkinson is clearly inviting readers to try to solve the novel’s three murders, she’s not actually that interested in plotting the details of the crimes (brutal and intriguing as they are). Rather, the despair, rage, guilt, and—maybe surprisingly—exuberant humor and real joy that spin out from the violence of the book’s first 50 pages are what’s really under investigation. Atkinson’s more concerned with how life goes on (or not) for the people the crimes have touched, and what the resolution of those crimes means to those lives.
And so, I ended this book club selection as I started it—with a sigh. Not because I didn’t like the book (I really did), but because it’s forced me to rethink a whole new genre. This means adding even more books to a to-read list that’s already too long for me to get through before I die. Maybe my morbid perspective means I’m more suited to mysteries than I realized.
*Disclaimer: Other book club members disagree on this point and should not be held accountable for the perspective here espoused. Read multiple Atkinson titles at your own risk.