Review of “Case Histories” by Kate Atkinson

I love Atkinson’s writing. She’s funny and sarcastic and snarky and can deliver devastingly apt observations about relationships. Therefore, in spite of the fact that I had already read this book several years ago, and have a TBR pile that is taking over my house, after reading When Will There Be Good News, I decided that I needed to go back to the beginning and read Atkinson’s other books again!

The book begins with three case histories of unsolved murders that are seemingly unconnected -and yet, if you’ve read some Atkinson, you know nothing ever remains unconnected! Three-year-old Olivia Land disappeared over thirty years ago. Eighteen-year-old Laura Wyre was killed in a law office massacre ten years previously by an unknown perpetrator. And 25 years ago, eighteen-year-old Michelle Fletcher, in over her head with a demanding baby and husband, went to prison for murdering her husband with an ax; what became of the child is unknown.

All of these cold cases are brought by the survivors to Private Detective Jackson Brodie, 45, divorced, and father of an eight-year-old, Marlee, whose affections he fears he is losing to his wife’s new partner. In spite of his preoccupations, however, he struggles to do his best by his clients, even though he is often profoundly perplexed by what they really want from him.

Each chapter is told from a different narrative viewpoint, and some of them cleverly replicate events of a previous chapter but from a different perspective. In this way, gradually the veils covering the truth about the past are unwound, and through Jackson, all the seemingly disparate strains join together in a karmic weave of chance and circumstance.

Discussion: What makes Atkinson’s books truly memorable is her facility with language, and her ability to capture so adroitly the essence of a character. Similarly, she is impressive for her astute and sobering portrayal of the quotidian concerns and existential ironies in the lives of ordinary (and not so ordinary) people.

Some examples of Atkinson’s writing prowess:

[re Josie, Jackson Brodie’s ex-wife, who “spent much of her working day modifying the behavior of five-year-old boys.”] ” When they were married she would come home and do the same to Jackson (‘For God’s sake, Jackson, use the proper words. It’s a penis’) during their evenings together, cooking pasta and yawning their way through crap on television. She wanted their daughter, Marlee, to grow up ‘using the correct anatomical language for genitalia.’ Jackson would rather Marlee grew up without knowing genitalia even existed, let alone informing him that she had been ‘made’ when he ‘put his penis in Mummy’s vagina,’ an oddly clinical description for an urgent, sweatily precipitate event that had taken place in a field somewhere off the A1066 between Thetford and Diss, an acrobatic coupling in his old F Reg BMW (320i, two-door, definitely a policeman’s car, much missed, RIP).”


“Jackson could feel the ache in his jaw starting up again. He was currently seeing more of his dentist than he had of his wife in the last year of their marriage. His dentist was called Sharon and was what his father used to refer to as ‘stacked.’ She was thirty-six and drove a BMW Z3, which was a bit of a hairdresser’s car in Jackson’s opinion, but nonetheless he found her very attractive. Unfortunately, there was no possibility of having a relationship with someone who had to put on a mask, protective glasses, and gloves to touch you. (Or one who peered into your mouth and murmured, ‘Smoking, Jackson?’)”


“Jackson [again at the dentist’s and eying the surgical instruments] tried not to think about this, nor about that scene in Marathon Man, and instead worked on conjuring up a picture of France. He could grow vegetables, he’d never grown a vegetable in his life, Josie had been the gardener, he’d carried out her orders, Dig this, move that, mow the lawn. In France, the vegetables would probably grow themselves anyway. All that warm fertile soil. Tomatoes, peaches. Vines, could he grow vines? Olives, lemons, figs – it sounded biblical. Imagine watching the tendrils creeping, the fruit plumping, oh God, he was getting an erection (at the idea of vegetables, what was wrong with him?).


Evaluation: Although there are crimes in this book, it is more a story about people and what motivates them than about mysteries. It is as if you are experiencing the tale holographically – the characters present themselves to you in all their dimensions, and you can’t dismiss any of them as caricatures. Atkinson is a writer for people who appreciate the craft, and who love discovering just how much depth can be bestowed to characters in a short space, and how much meaning can be packed into a deceptively simple paragraph.

Rating: 4/5

Paperback edition published by Back Bay Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company (now part of Hachette Book Group USA), 2005 (Originally published: London: Doubleday, 2004).


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20 Responses to Review of “Case Histories” by Kate Atkinson

  1. Teresa says:

    Kate Atkinson is brilliant, isn’t she? One of my favorite crime writers working today (and I love her non-crime fiction, too). I’m crossing my fingers that the BBC Jackson Brodie series with Jason Isaacs will come to the U.S. soon. People in the UK seem to love it!

  2. Sandy says:

    I read this pre-blogging, and it was then that I got a taste of the literary thriller. Really opened my eyes after reading so many airplane novels. She is so astute in her observations of people, and inter-relationships. And I do love her snark. In the back of my tiny mind, I am planning an Atkinson extravaganza someday. I just want to read all of it.

  3. Kay says:

    I think the TV adaptation will be shown in the US this fall on Masterpiece Contemporary. Looking forward to it, although I’ll have to do a quick “re-boot” on Jason Isaacs and get the stench of Lucius Malfoy off of him. LOL

  4. BermudaOnion says:

    I read Atkinson’s newest book and didn’t love it as much as I thought I would. I want to go back and read some of her earlier work.

  5. Julie P. says:

    We read this one for me book club a few years back. LOVED IT! I think Ms. Atkinson is so talented. I love the character development and insights into human nature that are part of all her books.

  6. Staci says:

    I picked up a couple of her books and now I have to check my book room to see which ones they are!! I need to get familiar with this author!!

  7. S. Krishna says:

    Atkinson definitely is an impressive writer! I’ve read two of her books, and am looking forward to the other two in the Jackson Brodie series (the second and fourth).

  8. Jenny says:

    I am going to read Kate Atkinson this year. YES I AM. I have just organized all my books in my new apartment, and Case Histories is one of the books on the shelf that I have designated as the Shelf O’ Books I Need to Just Read Already. It’s going to happen.

  9. Funny, sarcastic and snarky? These are a few of my favorite things! I won a package from her last year – two books, two audios… and I have yet to read or listen to her. Obviously I need to get with it!

  10. zibilee says:

    I have this book on my shelf, and have had, for the longest time. I keep saying that I need to read more Atkinson, but then I don’t. I did read Behind the Scenes at the Museum a long while ago, but I have never read any of her crime books. It might be time. Especially when you have so many positive things to say about her writing!

  11. ds says:

    Love Kate Atkinson, and love Jackson Brodie. You’re right, she is well worth a re-read (or two). Must look into the new one…

  12. Now this sounds like one I’d enjoy. I own several books by this author, but haven’t read a one sadly.

  13. Alyce says:

    I knew this book sounded familiar. I checked it out from the library after your last review of one of her books. The only problem was I ran out of time to read it and had to turn it back in. I’ve heard from multiple people that she’s a good writer. I’ll have to find time to read it someday.

  14. Frances says:

    I have this and two others by her but still haven’t read them, but first Teresa and now you… I will cave eventually.

  15. Steph says:

    As you know, I really love Kate Atkinson… only I have never been able to get into her detective fiction! I love all of her other books that I’ve read, but when I tried to read Case Histories a few years ago, I just found it really underwhelming and kind of boring! I know, I know, I can hardly believe it myself! Part of me wonders if I just hadn’t developed my reading palate enough at that time when I tried it, because it seems so crazy to me that I would love everything else Atkinson has written but not care for these books at all!

  16. stacybuckeye says:

    I have this one on my shelf and know I need to read it. Somewhere I need to find/manufacture more time!

  17. I don’t think I have ever read anything by Atkinson…but “funny and sarcastic and snarky”..well that sounds right up my alley! Does she have a new book out? I thought I saw one at the library last evening…

  18. JoV says:

    ahhh… all raves about Kate Atkinson. I’m sold on this. I’ll have to read her books soon!

  19. “It is as if you are experiencing the tale holographically” … goodness, what a phrase! I’ve yet to read Kate Atkinson, but I’ll put both CASE HISTORIES and WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS on my wish list.

  20. isabel says:

    I´m at university and this book is one of a list of four that our profesor asked us to read. I´ve already started and it´s nice to know it will be such a pleasant read!

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