One of my favorite kind of mystery yarns is trying to figure out how disparate characters are entangled in the overall thread of the story. Kate Atkinson’s 2011 novel, Started Early, Took My Dog, is an exquisite example of how to effectively do that.
There are three main characters, and they all share the commonality of being near or at retirement, and reflecting upon their lives: Tracy Waterhouse, a retired police officer who resembles a familiar curmudgeon, but really just wants love; Tilly, an elderly actress on the cusp of dementia, who never quite got her big break; and Jackson Brodie, a character Atkinson has used before in other novels, who is a private detective, always searching for the ghosts in his past.
And the best fiction has something to say beyond the fictional mystery unraveling, and so is the case with Atkinson’s novel here. Set in Britain in the 1970s, and in the present day the book was written, Atkinson details the emerging feminism of the 1970s, as it clashes with the boys-will-be-boys boys club of the 1970s, particularly potent among the police force Tracy joined in the 1970s. Virtually every male police officer in the novel is noted for cheating on their wives, and often with prostitutes who they otherwise demean as “whores.” That’s the other thing. If you’re a “whore,” then your life doesn’t matter. Your death doesn’t matter. To highlight this point, Atkinson even references the real-life serial killer, Peter Sutcliffe, known as the Yorkshire Ripper, who murdered prostitutes.
The other way feminism presents itself in the novel is that virtually all the women, in some form or another, are unable to conceive, or otherwise don’t have children. Whether that’s Tracy because she hasn’t sought love, or allowed herself to take in love, or the wives of the policeman who are biologically incapable of conceiving. It is that fact that is the catalyst for what ends up happening in the book: A policeman, who was having sex with a prostitute (and again, cheating on his wife), fathered a child with her (she already had a boy prior to him), and then in a rage, killed her. The police helped him cover it up because “boys-will-be-boys,” and if we’ve learned anything about the police, it is that they are the most effective legalized gang there is. Not only is the prostitute’s murder covered up, but the girl is given to a woman and doctor couple unable to conceive, and the boy is thrown into an orphanage. Eventually, 30 years later, the boy and the girl hire private detectives (the girl hired Jackson) to investigate who their real parents are.
Tracy, a beat cop at the time of this cover-up, and an actual good cop, wouldn’t stop asking questions about it, and wishes she had saved that boy. So, in a wild moment in the present day, she literally buys a four-year-old girl, Courtney, from a prostitute, and goes on the run with her. It doesn’t seem like Courtney is the prostitute’s actual kid, and I don’t think we ever find out who her real mother is, nor do we find out who later kills the prostitute (and a string of other prostitutes), but it seems to be hinted that it’s a Yorkshire Ripper copycat? So, even 30 years later, prostitutes haven’t much changed in terms of being low-risk victims to a would-be killer, i.e., they are the most likely to be targeted by serial killers because nobody will ask questions if they suddenly disappear off the street, or will be as inclined to uncover who murdered them.
I thought Jackson was a Lee Child Jack Reacher clone at first, and he even repeats one of Reacher’s favorite lines about eat when you can because you never know when you’ll eat again, and he’s also a bit of a nomad staying in hotels and living rather minimally, but he’s not exactly Reacher. He’s goofier, and isn’t as capable both physically and with his wits as Reacher is (he gets beat-up by two guys, and gets outsmarted by Tracy), which I thought made him endearing and relatable. He also likes, and quotes, Emily Dickinson. And he has a dog, who, sort of similar to Tracy, took from a man in a happenstance way (the man was mistreating the dog). In fact, I didn’t realize until after finishing the book and reading the included interview with the author and the reading guide questions, that the title of the book (which I already thought was awesome) is an Emily Dickinson line in a poem she wrote. The book also ends with an Emily Dickinson poem, “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers,” which I blogged about previously here.
The novel is quite dark, as every character has ghosts and/or demons in their past, including Tracy (particularly manifest in her relationship with her parents), so ending on Emily Dickinson’s poem about hope I thought was a nice way to end on a brighter note. That the wrongs of the past can be corrected, or at least, revealed, and that new paths can be forged (Tracy becoming a “mother” to Courtney). Hope is persistent through it all.
Throughout the book, because of the Dickinson influence, because of the feminism and sexism explorations, and because of the depths mined of past and present British society, Atkinson’s novel is one that makes you think beyond the “whodunit” aspect of the mystery, although, as I mentioned, I was very curious how all of those pieces and characters would come together. I found all three of the principle characters deeply interesting, and I was particularly saddened by Tilly’s story, as it was hard to read about her decline into dementia (and the way those around her treated her so poorly). I like a thinking crime book. I like a thinking crime book that is smartly operating on multiple levels at once, and is able to come to a satisfying conclusion that ties all of those loose ends together.
And Atkinson is also just funny. The observations and writing doesn’t just make you think, but they made me laugh, too. She has a sort of Steven Wright-esque deadpan, which I highly enjoyed.
Atkinson is a puppet master of the highest order, dangling all of her richly drawn characters within the the British sandbox she also richly etched. I would highly recommend this novel to anyone. I want to read more of her Jackson novels.