I’m entirely uncertain what to think of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories. There were moments I enjoyed it and moments it left me deeply troubled. The troubling moments were partly aesthetic — there were times, especially near the end, when I found what happened to the characters so unconvincing I laughed — and partly about subject matter I didn’t like. I’m not sure if I can hold this against the book or not, although I would like to.
The subject matter I didn’t like had to do with the way women in the book are constantly under threat and are victims of violence, and the way the men freak out about this to such an extent that one has fantasies of sending his daughter away to a convent. Now, a book that takes up the theme of violence against women sounds interesting to me, but in this case, the picture Atkinson creates is one that is so dark, it felt less like an exploration of the subject and more like a warning — a warning I don’t particularly want to hear.
Okay, but to back up a bit, this book is a mystery, although it’s marketed as literary fiction with mystery elements in it — a ridiculous distinction, really. It has an interesting structure, and Atkinson handles the plotting well. My uncertainties about this book aside, I found the story compelling the whole way through. It starts off with three different “case histories”: descriptions of crimes including kidnapping and murder. Then we are introduced to the detective, Jackson, a private investigator who spends a good deal of his professional time looking for lost cats. As is typical in mystery novels, Jackson has a troubled personal life; his wife has just left him for another man and he tries to spend as much time as he can with his daughter, but he worries he is losing influence over her.
Eventually he finds himself caught up in the three cases. All of the crimes happened years in the past, but in each case something has happened to inspire the survivors to want to look into it again. The police were unable to solve the crime in all three cases and Jackson has serious doubts he will be able to solve them himself, but he has been hired to do a job, and so he tries.
In the course of following Jackson’s investigations, the novel switches point of view frequently, moving from Jackson’s perspective to that of the various survivors. At first this rapid switching from story to story was distracting, but eventually it’s possible to settle into each of the plot lines and begin to enjoy each one. Atkinson does a good job of giving each story its due, and they all feel equally well developed. This doesn’t strike me as an easy feat, and I admire Atkinson for pulling it off, except for those moments where, as I mentioned above, events seemed contrived and I found myself jolted out of the story by some development that didn’t strike me as true.
Jackson is an entertaining detective, but I couldn’t help but feel that he is a rather pale imitation of Rebus from the Ian Rankin novels and of other detectives in other mysteries. The usual elements are there — the troubled love life, the complicated past, the tendency to get beat up regularly, the sardonic view of the world. Jackson spends a lot of time listening to female country music singers — Emmy Lou Harris, Gillian Welch — and this felt like an overly-easy shorthand method of characterization.
So, again, I don’t quite know what to think. At times I was entertained, at times I was irritated, and at times I thought the world Atkinson was painting was a much darker one than what I am willing to accept. I generally don’t have a problem with darkness at all, but here it didn’t seem genuine. It’s not as though all the men are aggressors and the women victims — in fact, one of the cases is about a woman who murders her husband. It’s more that we are reminded again and again that although women can commit acts of violence just as men can, they are still and always uniquely vulnerable and need to be eternally vigilant (and need men to be eternally vigilant in protection of them). That’s not an idea I’m willing to accept.