Calling a mystery novel a literary one is increasingly being taken as a shot by both camps. But that is the conundrum facing the dedicated fan of Kate Atkinson, whose Started Early, Took My Dog, the fourth in her gumshoe Jackson Brodie series, turns prostitution, the poems of Emily Dickinson, England's crisis of shoplifting and snippets from The Tempest into something rich and deeply strange.
It's the aftermath of the financial crash, and in a mall in decidedly unglamorous Leeds, England, former cop and bruiser Tracy Waterhouse has downsized to collecting her pension while working security. Across the pond, chirpy adopted New Zealander Hope McMaster has engaged Jackson to find her birth mother, communicating with him mainly in exclamation-point-ridden texts. Meanwhile, aging actress Matilda "Tilly" Squires, overshadowed by a Judi Dench like rival, has gone positively D list, glad even for a supporting role on the cheesy Collier, a prime-time cop drama on which Jackson's ex and baby mama Julia appears.
Entire oeuvres would collapse under a lighter load. But Atkinson is like a literary peddler, nimbly picking through her enormous, lumpen store of goods for the pertinent item. When an impulsive act of Tracy's one day at the mall links her to Jackson and Tilly, Atkinson slowly reveals how they were already linked by the long-ago death of a prostitute, Carol Braithwaite, whose brutal murder in 1975 sets the events of the day, and the novel that follows, in motion.
This is Atkinson's territory: a postindustrial Britain littered with murdered women, their vanished progeny and the living who can't let them go. Ghosts abound, from Jackson's long-dead murdered sister Niamh to Tracy's mother, dead, to the delight of her daughter, to characters' imagined conversational partners. (Even the English canon rises from the dead, wanting someone to know the provenance of a quote.) The novel itself is haunted by Collier, whose cheesy crime scenes and anorexic, coked-up lead are a foil for a young Tracy. As a recruit, she watches a colleague dub the bloodied corpse of Carol a "good time" girl. "Doesn't look like she's having a very good time," Tracy murmurs.
Atkinson is no thrillist on the subject of female corpses. She's an advocate for clearly delineating the types of violence against women. The violence she describes can be rather quotidian and even comical, as when Tracy wonders, as the waistband of her unforgiving pants cuts her in half, why she always swells during the day. (This mystery, unfortunately, remains unsolved.) But it also includes the grim death meted out to Carol, who good-time girl that she was was only, like Jackson, Tilly and Tracy, seeking a family.
Atkinson's brilliant plotting coupled with extraordinary exposition may keep her at the forefront of the literary-mystery overlap. But her most skillful combination is far more subtle. In this day of bloody girls splayed across screens and book covers, Atkinson writes about violent crime against women without being salacious, but she never holds back from entertaining.