Started Early, Took My Dog is Kate Atkinson's seventh novel and the fourth to star private eye Jackson Brodie, survivor of a tragic childhood and much hapless love; seeker of lost people; and champion of the powerless. Melancholy, rueful, and obstinate, Jackson is one of the most appealing sleuths ever to tread the pages of a crime thriller, an appeal now sharpened by his new-found affinity for Emily Dickinson and heightened beyond all resisting by his having acquired a dog. Rescued by Jackson from an abusive yobbo, it is a little terrier, exuberant and joyously doggy one moment, thoughtful and attentive the next.
Turning from this excellent creature to the plot we find a superbly ingenious construction composed of the meshed repercussions of hidden crimes and cruelties, and a gradually revealed arabesque of intertwined lives. The book begins in 1975 in Leeds with the discovery of a starving child and the body of a murdered woman in a locked apartment. Called to the scene is Tracy Waterman, a solidly built policewoman, and her partner, Ken Arkwright, "a stout white Yorkshireman with a heart of lard." But no sooner is this event introduced, than the action sheers off, first to Jackson finishing off his last caper six months ago, and then on to the present where we find Tracy Waterman again, now in her 50s, retired from the police force and working as head of security at a down-market shopping mall. Surveying the commercialized ugliness of the place and the unhappy people who frequent it, she reflects, "All human life was here. Britain -- shoplifting capital of Europe."
Tracy's thwarted maternal instincts come to a boil as she observes an enraged woman, Kelly Cross, "prostitute, druggie, thief, all-around pikey," yelling into a cell phone while dragging a screaming little girl along at brutal speed. Inundated by "despair and frustration as she contemplated the blank but already soiled canvas of the kid's future," Tracy is seized by an impulse. "One moment she was…contemplating the human wreckage that was Kelly Cross, the next she was saying, 'How much?'" She flashes 3,000 euros she has just withdrawn from the bank. It's enough for Kelly, who grabs the money and drops the girl's hand. Tracy has just bought a child.
Tracy and her new charge set off in search of a new life -- pursued, soon enough, by mysterious trackers with, it would seem, evil intentions. So begins one extraordinary strain of the story. Another proceeds from the addled point of view of Tilly, a superannuated actress drifting in and out of senility. She has been playing the mother of the macho star of a TV soap opera, a role created to make the man seem "more human." But she has recently learned that her character is going to be killed off very soon, presumably because she can't get her lines down. This is only the beginning of the woes that fill Tilly's old head, all of them merging together, impressionistically, almost poetically, in her befuddlement.
The third major strand of the story proceeds from Brodie's point of view as he pursues a new assignment: finding the natural parents of a woman living in New Zealand who was adopted in England as a child. Although a few other characters contribute threads of consciousness to the narrative, Tracy's, Tilly's, and Jackson's points of view carry the story along, each accompanied by tart observations on the degraded condition of England and nostalgic laments for her vanished past: "No more half-day closing," reflects Tilly, contemplating the tawdry activity of the shopping mall through which Kelly is dragging her child. "Everything open all the time now, getting and spending we lay waste our powers. And where had all the money gone? You go to sleep living in a prosperous country and you wake up in a poor one, how did that happen?"
The novel is immensely exciting and very funny, even with all the sadness and badness it encompasses; and it is supremely devious in execution. Atkinson deploys past and present storylines in a pincer movement, marshalling seemingly miscellaneous actions and events into a coherent picture, one in which each character plays an often unwitting part. Atkinson really has no peer in the deftness with which she pulls this off; and it is a trick that goes beyond technique. As characters belonging to one narrative strand suddenly pop up in another, a surreal mood creeps into the novel. Indeed, these surprise involvements and coincidences begin to seem like evidence of an underlying current in the world, of some invisible struggle between good and evil, one in which the innocent are at once the most vulnerable and the most potent. This mood, which has a tincture of Arthurian romance about it, is an amalgam of whimsy and irony, and is uniquely Atkinson's.
The result is an intoxicating read. As the suspense and action intensify, as everything and everyone come hurtling together in the last pages, this particular reader was completely swept away by an exhilarating mix of dread and hilarity.
--Katherine A. Powers