Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Case Histories My first introduction to Kate Atkinson’s work was Life After Life, which I read in 2013 and loved. I’ve been wanting to read more of her books and knowing that a lot of people speak very highly of her Jackson Brodie novels, I decided to start with the first one in the series, Case Histories.

In Case Histories, private detective Jackson Brodie is investigating three old cases that have remained unresolved for years:

Case History No. 1 – During the summer heatwave of 1970, three-year-old Olivia Land is sleeping in a tent in the garden with her older sister, Amelia. When Amelia wakes up, she finds that Olivia has disappeared without trace.

Case History No. 2 – In 1994, eighteen-year-old Laura Wyre is murdered on her first day working in her father’s office. Her killer has still not been found and no motive for the attack has ever been discovered.

Case History No. 3 – In 1979, Michelle Fletcher is living on an isolated farm with her new husband and baby daughter. Depressed, lonely and finding it hard to cope, an argument with her husband ends in a brutal murder.

The connection between these three stories is Jackson Brodie, who is contacted by family members hoping to have the cases reopened or looked at again. Amelia and Julia Land want to find out what happened to their little sister, Olivia, and whether she could still be alive; Laura’s father, Theo, wants to know who killed his beloved daughter and why; and Shirley Morrison is searching for her sister Michelle’s daughter, with whom she lost contact after the incident which tore their family apart. But Jackson has problems of his own and as he begins to investigate these three very different crimes, he is reminded of a tragedy in his own past and another ‘lost girl’ who disappeared from his life decades earlier.

I loved Case Histories. I know describing a book as unputdownable is a cliché, but it was true in this case – it really is the sort of book where once you start reading, you don’t want to stop until you reach the end. It’s a crime novel I would recommend even to readers who are not really interested in crime fiction because, while the three mysteries are quite interesting, the real strength of the book is in the characterisation. The story is not so much about the crimes themselves as about the effect they had on the people involved and how they have tried (and often failed) to move on from what has happened.

I liked Jackson and am looking forward to meeting him again in the rest of the series, but my favourites in this book were Amelia and Theo. Amelia, who is approaching middle age feeling friendless and unwanted, has invented an imaginary boyfriend to brighten up her non-existent social life, and Theo, for whom his daughter was the centre of his universe, is neglecting his health while he devotes his life to finding her killer, drawing up colour-coded charts of her friends and teachers and making yearly pilgrimages to the scene of her death. Their lives are sad, lonely and tragic, yet Atkinson injects just enough humour into their stories to turn them into characters who are amusing but not ridiculous, flawed but sympathetic.

I also thought the structure of the book was interesting, because the timeline is not entirely linear. We see events from one perspective in one chapter, then in the next chapter we go back several hours, days or weeks to see those same events from another character’s perspective, filling in gaps and adding to our knowledge of what is going on. Two of the case histories – Olivia’s disappearance and Laura’s murder – worked very well alongside each other, but the third one, involving Michelle and her sister, felt disconnected from the others and didn’t work quite as well. I think I had expected all three cases to be much more closely linked than they actually were and I was disappointed that they weren’t.

At the end of the book, after Jackson is sure he’s solved the crimes, there are still more twists to come. We are given enough information throughout the story so that we can guess at what may have happened and work out some parts of the mystery, but the final pieces of the puzzle are withheld from us until the very end.

That’s two Kate Atkinson books read and two enjoyed; now I can’t wait to read the second book in the Jackson Brodie series, One Good Turn.

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24 thoughts on “Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

  1. realthog says:

    Two of the case histories – Olivia’s disappearance and Laura’s murder – worked very well alongside each other, but the third one, involving Michelle and her sister, felt disconnected from the others and didn’t work quite as well. I think I had expected all three cases to be much more closely linked than they actually were and I was disappointed that they weren’t.

    I think it’s primarily for this reason that I’m the only person on the planet who was unimpressed by Case Histories. I thought the TV-movie adaptation did a marginally better job of tying everything together, although it had its problems too.

  2. Isi says:

    Oh I haven’t read any book by this author, but this one happens to be in the public library, and I have picked it up several times and put it in its place again because I thought it was a short stories compilation.
    I saw your link on twitter by chance, and now I’m really looking forward to borrowing it 😀

  3. Iris on Books says:

    I have been meaning to read something by Atkinson for forever. And I have been in doubt about this series, because I am not a crime reader. But you’ve convinced me: I should definitely give these a try.

    • Helen says:

      I loved Life After Life, though it’s a very different type of book from Case Histories. I’m looking forward to reading the other Jackson books – I was lucky enough to find One Good Turn in the library yesterday!

  4. Valorie Grace Hallinan says:

    Like you, I’ve read Life After Life and think it is wonderful. I’ve been looking forward to reading more of her so thank you for this. Did you know that Atkinson may be writing another novel from the viewpoint of the brother of the woman in Life After Life?

    • Helen says:

      I had heard that there was probably going to be a sequel, but I didn’t know it would be from the brother’s point of view. That should be interesting – I’m looking forward to it.

  5. Lisa says:

    This didn’t quite work for me, either – but I know part of the problem was reading it too soon after Life After Life. I have her books in mind to try again later.

    • Helen says:

      I really enjoyed this one but I can see that it might have suffered from being read too soon after Life After Life. I probably did the right thing in waiting a while before trying another of her books.

  6. Fleur in her World says:

    I loved Kate Atkinson’s early books and I was a little worried when I saw she was writing crime fiction, but I quickly realised I shouldn’t have been. I loved it and I am so glad that you did too.

    • Helen says:

      I’m pleased you loved this one too. I’m planning to read the rest of the Jackson Brodie series first and then go back to her earlier books.

  7. Alex says:

    I first read Atkinson with a very bad Portuguese translation of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which put me off her for many years, until I started blogging. Everyone praised her so much that I decided to give her another shot and picked up Case Histories last year. Also loved it and am determined to read much more by her. Did you know there’s a TV adaptation?

    • Helen says:

      I can see how a bad translation could put you off an author, but I’m glad you gave her another chance. I haven’t seen the TV adaptation but I would like to now that I’ve started reading the series.

  8. The Little Reader Library says:

    I’m so glad to read you loved this one, I love the Jackson Brodie series and I would recommend reading them all. I think my favourite was When Will There Be Good News? I hope she writes some more one day. Happy New Year too. Lindsay

    • Helen says:

      One Good Turn is on my library pile so I’ll be starting it soon, but I’m pleased to hear I can look forward to reading When Will There Be Good News as well.

  9. Jo says:

    I’m glad you ventured into the Jackson Brodie books. They make for very different crime reading I think.

    And what is so interesting is the contrast between these and the wonderful Life after Life. I am so looking forward to reading her new novel.

    • Helen says:

      This is not a conventional crime novel and I think that’s why I liked it so much. I’ll be reading the rest of the series, but I’m looking forward to her new novel as well.

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