Started Early, Took My Dog: A Novel by Kate Atkinson (New York: Reagan Arthur, 2011. 371 pp)

Kate Atkinson (b. 1591) is an English author. She won the Whitbread Book of the Year award for her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Her most recent novels, Case Histories, One Good Turn, and When Will There Be Good News?, feature her most renowned character Jackson Brodie. She lives in Scotland.

Psychological Crime Drama & Mystery

A fan of psychological crime drama, at least in regard to film, I rarely read the books of the same genre. That’s mainly because I enjoy the fast paced nature of film when it retells a story related to crime, partially because the mystery is always alive. In novels, however, I find mystery somewhat lacking. J.J. Abrams, director of the famed Lost television series famously stated in a TED talk,

“Mystery represents infinite possibility. It represents hope, it represents potential. Mystery is the catalyst for imagination. There are times where mystery is more important than knowledge.” 

However, I’ve always been a fan of Kate Atkinson, as she uses legitimate, nearly poetic prose with her stories, as well as ample amounts of mystery. Her novels are normally witty, suspenseful, and a combination of both literary brilliance and a crime drama. This is no less true in her most recent novel, Started Early, Took My DogPerhaps more to the point, Atkinson uses each character in a way that further enriches the mystery within. Each character is related to the others, in ways that are fairly mind-bending. For this reason, and with a desire not to remove the blindfold to reveal the mystery, I’ll introduce you to the main characters of the crime drama.

Character #1: Tracy Waterhouse

Newly retired from the police force, Tracy Waterhouse works at a shopping mall. She’s over 50, overweight, and unhappy.

“Tracy had retired with a shell so thick that there was hardly any room left inside. Vice, sexual offenses, human trafficking—the underbelly of Drugs and Major Crime—she’d seen it all and more. Witnessing the worst of human behavior was a pretty good way of killing off anything soft and fluffy” (16).

While performing her routine, extremely boring patrol, she notices a thug from her police days, someone she doesn’t trust carrying a screaming child.

“Kelly Cross was the reason for the screaming child. No surprise there. Kelly Cross. Prostitute, druggie, thief, all-round pikey. A scad-end of a woman. Tracy knew her. Everyone knew her.  Kelly had several kids, most of them in care and they were the lucky ones, which was saying something” (21).

What happens, however, is not completely normal, nor does Tracy expect it. She offers to buy the screaming infant, named Courtney, for £3,000. Even stranger, the woman is happy to unload the child. Now desirous of a new future, Tracy begins to make plans to leave the country, change her name (along with her new acquisition), and vanish into a brilliant new beginning. Tilly, an out-of-work actress, is a witness of the acquisition. So is Jackson Brodie.  Their lives begin to intertwine.

Character #2: Tilly

Tilly is a superannuated actress who is fighting the effects of old age. The mother in a TV soap opera, she has recently learned that her character will be killed of soon due to her senility.

“They’d brought Tilly in to play Vince Collier’s mother because they wanted to make the character ‘more human,’ more vulnerable. Tilly had worked before with the actor who played Vince Collier, when he was a teenager, and she kept calling him by his real name—Simon—instead of Vince. Seven takes today just to say good-be to him on a doorstep” (28).

Now completely befuddled and depressed, the narrative frankly and beautifully talks of her path down old age, losing a job, and senility.

Character #3: Jackson Brodie

Jackson Brodie is a private eye, now fifty years of age. His current job is to find the parents of Hope McMaster, an adopted woman living in New Zealand. During his investigation, he uncovers an unsolved crime from the 1970s. As he investigates, he begins to learn that the past never really stays in the past. Also, while investigating, he acquires a small dog (hence the name of the novel). Ever the scruffy gentleman, Brodie rescues the dog from a man who is abusing it.

“The dog was still cowering in the boot. He could hardly leave it there, so he picked it up and was surprised to find that it was warm even though it was shivering all over as if it were frozen…He turned round the tag on the dog’s collar so that he could read it. ‘Let’s see if you’ve got a name,’ he said. ‘The Ambassador?’ Jackson said, looking doubtfully at the small dog. ‘What kind of a name is that?’” (41).

Jackson is an appealing sleuth, especially to women. He has a scruffy, chiseled look about him, with a smile that will melt a woman at forty paces. His love of the poet Emily Dickinson certainly doesn’t dissuade the kinder gender away from his pursuits.

The Characters Intertwined

Now, if you’ve ever read a Kate Atkinson novel before, you know that she has a penchant for connecting random characters in the most unusual of ways. Atkinson intertwines the characters in a tincture of romance, melancholy, and whimsy in a way that is near impossible to describe without providing a whole manuscript of the novel while ruining the mystery at the same time. The author employs both the past and present of the character’s lives as well as the crime scene of the 1970s to pull off a mind-bending plot line.

The peripeteia within Started Early, Took My Dog completely surprises, much like film genre of the psychological crime thriller. If you enjoy the type of movie that surprises, and enjoy mystery, Started Early, Took My Dog is assuredly for you.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Posted by: Andrew JacobsonAffiliate Links: Shop Indie Bookstores Powell’s Books



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