Review by Mary Kat
- Rating: 😻😻 /5
- Recommend for: This wasn’t a good fit for me, so I’m not sure. If you enjoyed this one, let me know in the comments!
A Case of the “Not For Me”
SPOILERS AHEAD! Continue at your own risk.
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson is a book I was fully expecting to like. So imagine my surprise when I realized I did not like this book, not by a long shot! Let me preface this by saying this my opinion, and I would love to hear others’ opinions because I’m open to the possibility that I just missed the boat on this one.
My dislike was a real surprising twist for me because Kate Atkinson has been on my TBR bookshelf for a long time. Her name often appears on recommendations for me, and I had a lot of personal hype looking forward to reading one of her works. I love mysteries and she’s acclaimed as a literary crime writer, so I thought the Jackson Brodie series would be a good place to start. But oh no, everything went wrong from there.
In truth, Case Histories isn’t really a mystery, despite being presented as one. At best, it’s a character study of people who have survived grief and senseless loss. (Which would actually be a really powerful “best” but I don’t think it lives up to its best.) At worst, it’s a mismatched, discordant novel full of suffering and without much common thread or purpose. Either way, this is not a novel for those in the mood to solve a whodunnit.
At the beginning, we are presented with three cases, seemingly unrelated (and weirdly enough, actually unrelated by the end of the book). The three cases are: a sudden disappearance of a young girl, the random slashing of a young lady, and a mother with a new baby who kills her husband.
I almost quit the book right there after reading the cases, and in retrospective, this was an omen of my feelings to come. The cases were too violent and emotionally devastating for my taste. Although I love solving puzzles and therefore enjoy mysteries, I hate violence.
Note that I don’t mind reading violence if there’s a purpose. For example, There There by Tommy Orange is a book that immediately comes to mind because of its depiction of violence against Native Americans. But this is important history and necessary background for the novel. In Case Histories, I didn’t see a point to the violence, and I avoid senseless violence in my pleasure reading.
I decided to continue, however, because I enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s writing style. I thought her sentences flowed, and I found her characters enthralling. She was adept at crafting a memorable character cast, and I felt like I really understood their emotions — for example, the heartache of father Theo after the loss of his daughter or the loneliness of Amelia, sister to the missing child. I felt their emotional drive, and this desire kept me turning the pages to find out the resolutions of the mysteries.
Not My Favorite
Unfortunately, there is no satisfying resolution to the mysteries. First, Jackson Brodie is certainly no Sherlock Holmes. In fact, he appears to be a horrible detective. He doesn’t notice clues or solve puzzles. He isn’t clever, bright, or particularly charming. Honestly, based on his police work, I wouldn’t expect him to crack these cases at all. But with each case, a interviewee just tells him the answer openly. It’s a wonder these cases were “cold cases” for so long if it only takes about two interviews each to solve.
The three cases are also fundamentally unrelated, besides a common use of Jackson Brodie as their detective. The three cases are unevenly presented (some getting far more attention than others), and the cases offer little insight into each other. Particularly, the case of the new mother who killed her spouse feels so tangential, to the point where I often forgot her storyline and had to flip back to review. As for the resolution, in the last few pages, we are given a couple pages on what exactly happened for each case.
I was hoping for a satisfying and clever conclusion to unite the cases. But to my dismay, the resolutions were impossible to predict, and the culprits’ motivations left incomprehensible. Let me give this as an example: for the young girl who was senselessly slashed, the culprit turned out to be a random neighbor with erotomanic delusion. This character was only in the book for the last ~20 pages, so the conclusion was unpredictable and meaningless to the rest of the book.
Worse, since the character was barely introduced, the character is not well drawn out, and I don’t get a clear view of his mindset/psychology/pathology. Beyond a superficial understanding, the motives behind the case histories remained a mystery for me.
I will offer this nugget that I enjoyed. The fourth case is presented in the last third of the book, and it involves Jackson Brodie himself. We learn that his own sister was a cold case, and we get a clear picture of how the loss devastated his family. It’s an emotionally resonant chapter, and it speaks to the potential of this book.
I’d like to say this book is more of a character study than a mystery, which is somewhat true. But not a character study in the sense that it’ll help the reader to understand the crimes of the titular case histories. More a brief picture into the suffering of those left behind. I was surprised to be disappointed by the novel because I liked Kate Atkinson’s writing style, but I found the story too inconsistent and plot too lacking.
Inconsistent storytelling, rather violent plot, and an impossible to predict mystery — not for me.
Up For Debate
Would be happy to hear your thoughts on this book or other Kate Atkinson’s novels! I’m less inclined to read her other works at present, which is too bad because I’ve had Life After Life on my TBR for a long time. But I’m open to being persuaded!