Started Early, Took My Dog is Kate Atkinson’s seventh novel and her fourth featuring ex-army, ex-police and sometime private Detective Jackson Brodie who first appeared in the hazy, sun-drenched and impossibly sad Case Histories. It is a very modern mystery novel that muses as much on the past as it does on the here-and-now, and although it mines a deep vein of melancholy it is also the funniest and most touching book I’ve read this year. It is a book about children lost, found and stolen – and a dog.
The novel features three main characters: Tracy Waterhouse, also formerly in the police-force and now working as a security chief in a Leeds shopping centre; Tilly, an ageing actor with a slowly loosening grip on her life and memory; and Jackson Brodie himself. All three carry the weight of their own pasts heavily, which resonate throughout the book and between the characters themselves.
The book opens with an outrageous human transaction – Waterhouse, on impulse, ‘buys’ a young girl. Although it is not clear what the origin of this girl is, there are clues that she may not be the abused youngster Tracy thinks she is. Jackson, meanwhile, is on his own quest to find the parents of a woman who was adopted as a two year-old while Tilly, through a fog of dementia, reflects on her past, and the child she aborted when she was a young woman.
Started Early… moves between the present day and 1975, where the discovery, in a Leeds flat, of the beaten body of a prostitute – and her starved and half-dead child – is set against a backdrop of police corruption and brutality, and a nascent Yorkshire Ripper. These episodes are witnessed by a young Tracy Waterhouse, early in her police career. The murder remains unsolved until years later, and is at the book’s core.
As it progresses, Started Early… weaves its various strands together through a series of chance encounters between the main characters. As Jackson pursues his case, it becomes clear that it is linked in some way to the 1975 murder, and that he is not the only one looking for answers. Throughout, Tracy seeks to escape from her drab and lonely life taking her new ’daughter’ with her. Her growing relationship with the little girl is beautifully written, enlivened by Atkinson’s trademark humour and lightness of touch. In the end, although the book’s central mystery is finally solved, the author leaves several plotlines tantalisingly unresolved.
As ever, Atkinson writes beautifully, lighting the darkness of her novel’s many sadnesses with dry humour and an endearing sense of fun. As she goes, she scatters cultural, literary and historical references like confetti, giving the book a rare depth. As a novel about the stoicism and generosity of the human spirit in the face of the unyielding weight of the past, Started Early… lives long in the memory. As a crime thriller about child abduction, murder and police corruption it is darkly compelling but never gratuitous.