Case Histories

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.


Filed under Books, Fiction

16 responses to “Case Histories

  1. I read this book before I started blogging and I just found it exceedingly underwhelming. I think I was so let down by it because I went in expecting a conventional literary thriller, and for me the pacing was too glacial for me to enjoy it… I felt like I was always just waiting for something to happen, and I just wasn’t caught up in any of the storylines. I don’t remember feeling that it was overly dark, but now that you mention it, I do remember elements that would certainly lend themselves to that kind of bleak and violent tone… either way, although I am a fan of Atkinson’s fiction I decided to forgo reading any more of her detective series.


  2. It is interesting that Atkinson won’t let herself be classified as a mystery author–I think she actually balks at the idea. Once again mysteries as a genre is bad yet calling it literary makes it okay. Oh well. I read the first novel with Jackson Brodie but it’s been long enough that he’s faded a bit from memory. I have the book on hand, though of course haven’t gotten to it yet, but now you have me very curious about it.


  3. Laughing out loud at contrivances isn’t a good sign though it can be forgiven if the rest is good enough. It sounds like this one wasn’t quite.


  4. Sarah

    I have to say I really enjoyed this, obviously not feeling my credibilty stretched helped! I like Atkinson’s often pessimistic humour, and didn’t mind switching between stories.

    I didn’t think Brodie’s character was the focus of Case Histories, but he is developed in the subsequent books if you get to them.

    I’m not certain that Atkinson is arguing “although women can commit acts of violence just as men can, they are still and always uniquely vulnerable and need to be eternally vigilant” but if she is I don.t find that an unreasonable statement. Crime stats would tend to back her up.


  5. Mr W

    I really loved this book, mostly for the structure, the way Atkinson gradually reveals how these three “case histories” are interrelated. I found the characterizations (especially of the grief-stricken father) precise and acute, and the sense of dread and menace in the countryside very well done. For me the weak point of the book is Jackson – he is the least interesting character, and it took me a while to even figure out that he was the “detective” figure. Unfortunately, Atkinson decided to spin him off into a series, to decidedly diminishing returns.
    Your point about the meaning of Atkinson’s bleak worldview (women in danger!) is a good one, and it’s why I usually shy away from books and TV shows that focus on violent crimes against women. For me, Atkinson’s vivid characters and plot twists made this book worth it.


  6. I’ve read mixed reviews concerning this book (both ends of the spectrum). I really respect your opinion and will probably pass on it.


  7. Finding a character so unconvincing it makes you laugh is not a good sign. I think I would bristle at the women in constant danger slant too. I think I’ll be skipping this one.


  8. Ann

    I know what you mean about the unease, but in the end I decided that I’d enjoyed this enough to read the other two which follow through Brodie’s story. I found that I was better off not reading them as detective fiction, but as literary works concentrating more on the themes than on the plots. The second was definitely my favourite.


  9. “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.”

    Amen, sister! Hate the women-are-uniquely-vulnerable trope.

    I had a similarly conflicted response to Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum – it seemed overly grim to me, in a less-than-compelling way. Just the same scenario repeated over and over again: girl gets pregnant, boy gets killed at war, girl gets pregnant…etc.


  10. Steph — interesting that you are a fan of her other fiction, just not of the detective novels. I’m curious about her other work now (although I don’t know that I’ll try it). It sounds like I liked it more than you did, my reservations aside — expectations matter a lot, don’t they? If you wanted something fast paced and exciting, I can see how this might not suit.

    Danielle — the more mysteries I read, the more I think distinctions between “literary” and “genre” fiction are silly and harmful. But people really do take them very seriously, so they matter. There are just so many mysteries that are great novels, all genres aside.

    Lilian — yeah, it wasn’t quite enough for me, especially given my uneasiness at the rest of the novel. But to be honest, the moments of laughing were seldom, maybe once or twice.

    Sarah — I suppose the crime stats would back that statement up; I just think that fiction that pounds the danger into our heads can add to the sense of danger women feel and can make them even more worried than they need to be. Now, criticizing Atkinson for portraying something that’s out there perhaps isn’t fair, which is why I was so hesitant in my post.

    Mr. W. — I definitely agree with you about structure, and Theo was a great character. I suppose my admiration of the structure didn’t outweigh the rest of the unpleasantness I felt; otherwise, I would have liked the book much more. Also agreed on Jackson; I kept comparing the way Atkinson uses music to characterize him with what Rankin does with Rebus, and Rankin strikes me as doing a better job. I suppose the “women in danger” plot is a common one in crime and mystery fiction — surely? — but it look on larger dimensions here than in any other mysteries I’ve read. Interesting that her other Jackson books aren’t as good — fewer books for me to read, I guess!

    Grad — well, I’d hate to think that I might turn you away from a book you might like, but I really didn’t click with this one. Interesting that you’ve read a variety of views on the book.

    Stefanie — well, to be honest, the laughing didn’t happen often, and it was only during the end-of-novel wrapping up where many authors rush through things to get to the end and plausibility often falls apart. But I did genuinely laugh, and it wasn’t a good sign!

    Ann — interesting to hear that not everyone thinks the first book in the series is the best. I approached this one more as a literary novel rather than a mystery novel, and it would have worked if I didn’t have such a strong reaction to the novel’s themes.


  11. Emily — I’m glad you agree. I feel strange making the argument, because as another commenter pointed out, if you look at crime stats, women ARE uniquely vulnerable (I’m guessing), but hearing that message over and over again in various ways — novels, news, TV, etc. — makes the danger seem so much worse and can make women needlessly afraid or limited in what they do. Your take on the Museum book is interesting; I considered reading that one at one point, but now I’m sure I’ll read any more Atkinson.


  12. Cam

    I tossed this book in my suitcase (I think it was book #8) at the last minute before I left for the airport on Saturday. Don’t know if I’ll read it now. I think your review just placed this at the bottom of the stack. Then again, I have 2 weeks and 8 books, and I may just want to see whether I agree with you or not.


  13. Unfortunately I don’t remember much about this book. I think I liked it ok and did want to read the sequel but just haven’t not gotten around to it. I’m curious if her main character goes through any changes and is developed a bit better in the next book.


  14. As much as we have to be aware of the crime stats I don’t think the responsibility should be placed on women to be ‘on our guard’. It seems to come up again and again that women must not place themselves in danger, by doing a variety of things (you may have read all those magazine articles a few years back about not wearing high heels because it makes it hard to run, not to dress provocatively because it makes you more of a target and oddly not having long hair or wearing a ponytail because cab driver rapists can lean back and grab you by the hair). If you get attacked and you’ve done one or more of those things, the articles seemed to suggest, then it’s really your fault for getting attacked. There are certainly some things we should all do (like not walking alone in bad areas at night) to keep ourselves safe, but the onus should not be on us to avoid violence it’s on the perpetrators not to break the law, surely. The message that men must be eternally vigilant bugs me as well because instead of taking it to reasonable lengths (such as offering to walk with you if it’s dark, unfamiliar territory and you might be a bit worse for wear) they force you to walk the two minutes back to your house that you’ve been walking since you were sixteen because ‘it’s not safe’, thus enforcing both the message that women are silly and do not think about things like safety properly and the everywhere is a source of danger message of terror.

    This rant was not about books I realise, but I can say that ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ didn’t impress me much (dull I thought). I am keeping Case Histories on my list, but it’s about mid range right now.


  15. Wow, what an interesting discussion on whether women are uniquely vulnerable or not. It reminds me of movie experiences I’ve had. Years ago, hating Paul Newman after seeing two movies in which he hit a woman. “Boys Don’t Cry,” which was devastating (don’t ask me to go into detail). Refusing to see any more Hillary Shank movies because she was always getting beaten up. I believe women are more vulnerable than men in the same circumstances (dark, lonely city streets; early morning jogging through the woods, etc.). For me, it’s no fun to see movies with this theme because they arouse almost a primeval fear. But I might read a book because, as a reader, I have more control over my emotions.


  16. Cam — I would certainly be curious to see if you disagree or not. From the comments, it looks like opinion varies greatly with this one, and it may be that my take is a very personal one.

    Iliana — well, from the comments at least, it sounds like most people don’t particularly like the sequels. Not to discourage you from reading them, though!

    Jodie — your “rant” is just fine! Regardless of the message the book might be sending, I agree with you entirely and can’t stand it that some women limit what they do because they are fearful of what might happen. Actually, I don’t like it when women OR men are overly cautious (overly cautious in my judgment, at least). I’m hardly a dare-devil type person, but I do things some people think are dangerous (riding my bike on the narrow roads around here), and there’s no way I’m going to let people keep me from doing what I want to do. I hate the thought of people living in fear.

    Julia — definitely, it’s easier to deal with these ideas in a book than a movie, at least for me, because I have time to think about things rather than reacting so emotionally. Yes, women probably are more vulnerable, but I don’t like seeing that message made so forcefully because it reinforces and deepens women’s fear and potentially limits them from doing things they want to do.


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