Former policewoman and now a security guard at a Leeds shopping centre, Tracy Waterhouse makes a shocking, split-second decision on an otherwise ordinary day. In ‘buying’ a child from a junkie, Tracy puts herself on the other side of the thin blue line she has defended ever since she left school. Fifty-something, lonely, and living a life that grows increasingly meaningless with every passing day, Tracy is fully aware of the enormity of her decision, and yet every instinct screams at her to protect the half-starved mite, Courtney.
A number of stories run parallel to Tracy’s. Jackson Brodie, a private investigator and a recurring character in Atkinson’s novels, criss-crosses the Northeast of England as he attempts to track down the genealogical roots of a client who was adopted at a very young age, and whose parents subsequently emigrated to New Zealand. Tilly, an aging actress who suffers from early dementia / Alzheimer’s, witnesses Tracy’s ‘purchase’ of Courtney, but can barely differentiate between who she is and the character she is playing, let alone help the police with their enquiries.
A further narrative strand takes us back to the mid-’70s, when the Yorkshire Ripper was at large in the Northeast. Tracy’s first case, as a young policewoman on the beat, involves discovering a woman dead in her flat, and a young, half-starved boy who has been left alone with the mouldering remains of his mother for a number of weeks.
It’s something of an understatement to say that STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG, the follow-up to Atkinson’s runaway smash WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS?, is an unusual crime novel. On the face of it, and given that it features a policewoman (both as an ex-policewoman and, in flashbacks, when she was actively working the beat) and a private eye, the novel appears to be adopting the standard tropes of both the police procedural and the private detective novel. Once you get under the skin of the novel, however, it quickly becomes clear that Atkinson employs these tropes in order to subvert them. Although she gains our sympathy very early in the story, and retains it throughout, Tracy Waterhouse is far from a typical copper. To begin with, her ‘buying’ of a young child is a shocking development mere pages into the story, regardless of how noble her motives are, or how desperate the circumstances Courtney is escaping. Atkinson never shies clear of how outrageous Tracy’s actions are, and yet still manages to generate reader sympathy for her self-imposed plight.
Meanwhile, Jackson Brodie is arguably the most whimsical private detective in contemporary fiction. His past, which is alluded to in a number of tangential sections, suggests that he is by no means a man to be messed with, and yet his internal monologues, and the ‘conversations’ he carries on in his head with his ex-wife, often border on pure farce. Brodie, incidentally, is the man who ‘adopts’ the dog of the title, when he rescues a terrier from a bullying owner. His ‘adoption’ of the dog runs parallel to Tracy’s ‘adoption’ of Courtney, and much of the black humour of the novel derives from their lack of understanding of their new charges.
Tilly, the aging actress, is also presented largely by way of internal monologue, although Tilly’s version of events tends to be cloudy at best, given that she is suffering from short-term memory loss and incipient dementia. Tilly is currently shooting a TV series called Collier, which is set in the Northeast and features the kind of hard-nosed, rebellious copper beloved of screen crime writers. Here, again, Atkinson has plenty of inter-textual fun poking jibes at fictional representations of crime in mainstream media, particularly in terms of how TV cop dramas tend to be chock-a-block with incident, whereas Atkinson’s story is positively mundane by comparison.
Atkinson writes in a deceptively elegant style, with the musings of her characters rendered almost conversational. The easy flow and apparently disjointed thought process masks precise plotting and superb attention to detail, although the style does become more staccato in the flashback sequences that take us back to the mid-’70s, when the writing - deliberately or otherwise - echoes the more impressionistic but simultaneously brutal style of David Peace’s haunting ‘Red Riding’ quartet, which also employed the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror for backdrop.
Atkinson’s subversive treatment of the tropes of crime fiction, and particularly those of the staple narratives of police procedural and private eye, is very much to her credit. Many crime fiction fans read little other than crime stories, and many are very happy to re-read the same kind of story over and over again. In playfully deconstructing the police procedural (Tracy, for example, uses her skills as a policewoman in order to keep herself beyond the reach of the long arm of the law), Atkinson is tapping into a zeitgeist in which concepts of law and order grow more fluid by the day. That sense of fluidity can be something as simple as the downgrading / upgrading of a particular drug from Class A to Class B, or vice versa, with the penalty for possession and / or dealing very much dependent on the political will of the day; or it can emerge from a much more important philosophical point of view, given that Britain - for example, and whether the majority of its citizens like it or not - played a major part in the illegal invasion of Iraq. If it’s okay for a government to flout international law, runs the theory, then why should the citizens of its country feel obliged to obey domestic laws? When the particular case explored here, that of Tracy’s rescuing the stray waif Courtney from horrible domestic circumstances, is an example of doing the right thing regardless of what the law demands, then the line between right and wrong is further blurred.
This is especially the case when Tracy’s actions are set against the historical backdrop of the novel, in which corruption, murder and cover-up go right to the heart of the policing establishment.
Meanwhile, Jackson Brodie’s private investigator is in many ways a parody of the conventional private eye. Yes, he is dogged, and yes, he follows through on his case to uncover the truth for his client. By the same token, Brodie has been commissioned to discover the truth about a woman’s birth details, which is hardly the kind of mission any self-respecting fictional private eye would concern him or herself with. Moreover, Brodie appears to be using the case as an excuse to visit monasteries and castles and other tourist traps. And while Brodie does deliver the information required, his emotional commitment in the novel is to the stray waif of a dog he has rescued from a bullying owner. This sub-plot strand is apparently designed to parallel that of Tracy and her rescue of Courtney, and Atkinson seems to be saying that, in the grand scheme of things, one more or less rescued child is worth no more or less than a rescued dog.
It’s also possible that the reverse is true, and that Atkinson is suggesting that a society can be judged on how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable, and that that applies not just to its human beings. If Brodie, a hard-nosed cynic with a dubious past, is prepared to go the extra mile and learn to live with his new best friend on its terms, then society is far more robust in terms of doing the right thing at its grass roots level than it is in its higher echelons.
Despite its picaresque structure and its flaunting of the standard crime novel tropes (and perhaps because of this), STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG is never less than a compelling page turner. It’s also a very good novel of any stripe, genre or otherwise, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that Atkinson’s debut novel BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM (1995) won the Whitbread Book of the Year. Atkinson, of course, isn’t the first literary author to turn her hand to crime fiction, and she won’t be the last. What makes this offering so satisfying is very obviously immersed in the genre, to the extent that she can afford to stand its conventions on their head and still turn in a pulsating, thoughtful, intelligent thriller. - Declan Burke
Praise for Declan Burke: “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – The Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “A hardboiled delight.” – The Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review). “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre, was ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL.” – Sunday Times. “The writing is a joy.” – Ken Bruen. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.