Christopher Priest died just over a week ago. I’m not familiar with his writing, having read only one book by him. That was The Prestige (1995). Here’s my review (originally posted on Google+, now on my personal site). I haven’t reread the book since writing that review, so my opinions about it haven’t changed, but those about Nolan’s film have. I’ve finally given up trying to persuade myself that I like or admire any of them apart from the first two. (I haven’t watched any since Interstellar. I didn’t feel that it made up for Inception. It’s hard to believe that anything could.)
Having referred you to my old review of a Christopher Priest novel, I now want to send you back to something else I wrote several years ago. My original post about Kate Atkinson’s series of novels featuring the intermittently retired private detective, Jackson Brodie was in issue 21 of Talk about books post, almost 2½ years ago. In that post I concentrated on the three middle books in the series. I couldn’t find my copy of the first book, Case Histories (2004), and it had been many years since I’d read it, so I remembered very little about it. I had read the fifth novel, Big Sky (2019), much more recently but because of the long gap between it and the previous three books, I had to reread them to remind myself where it fit into the overall story, and they were therefore fresher in my mind. I’ve since found my copy of Case Histories and I’ve reread both books, and I’d like to say a little more about the series.
I don’t intend to make any substantial revisions to the argument of my earlier post: I haven’t changed my mind as a result of the rereading.
Case Histories features four different killings, three of them unequivocally murders, the earliest from 1970 and the last from 1994, ten years before the action of the novel. Jackson Brodie is asked to investigate two of them by some of the bereaved and is just tangentially involved with a third. The fourth is the rape and murder of his older sister Niamh, when he was just 12. Although the killings are not related to each other, the story does not have an episodic or disjointed feel. There’s a thematic unity to at least three of the cases, including Niamh’s (which remains unsolved).
If you’ve read my earlier post about the Jackson Brodie series, you won’t be surprised to learn that the unifying theme is the vulnerability, to violence and abuse, of children and many women. Two of the victims are 18-year-old young women. (Indeed, there’s a third 18-year-old who could be seen as a victim, though not of murder: she has been convicted of killing her husband and sentenced to life imprisonment.) The remaining victim was just 3 years old, the youngest of three sisters, when she disappeared in 1970.
The missing 3-year-old, Olivia Land, has still not been found by the time her father dies, 34 years later. A surprising discovery in his study prompts two of Olivia’s three older sisters to ask Jackson Brodie to try to find out what happened to her. Their father, a disappointed academic mathematician, had sexually abused his eldest daughter — who had since converted to Catholicism and entered an enclosed order of nuns — and tried to do likewise with the third daughter, Julia, who had screamed loudly and fought him off.
The other case that Jackson investigates is the murder of Laura Wyre, the summer before she had been due to go to university in Aberdeen to study marine biology. She agrees with her father, Theo, to work in his solicitors’ practice as a summer job, though she already has a job in a bar, which is “much more fun” (Case Histories, p. 291). On her first day in her father’s office, she has her carotid artery sliced open by a stranger wielding a knife and wearing a yellow golf jumper. The killer walks out again and is never identified.
Laura was the younger and by far the more beloved of Theo’s two daughters and, ten years later, he has not come to terms with her murder. “Why should he?” asks Lily-Rose (p. 230), the homeless 25-year-old who was brought up in care after her father was murdered and her mother tried and convicted of the crime. Lily-Rose helps to save Theo’s life when he has an asthma attack and has forgotten his inhaler at home.
Lily-Rose may well be Tanya, the daughter of Michelle, who was convicted of murdering her husband, Tanya’s father, with an axe. Lily-Rose’s age and history fit with those of Tanya, and she tells Theo and Jackson that “Lily-Rose” is a name she gave herself. Jackson was asked by Michelle’s younger sister, Shirley, to try to find Tanya but he turned down the case because Shirley lied to him (partly by omission). Having served her sentence, Michelle gets a new fake identity (as “Caroline”, using the notorious Day of the Jackal birth certificate trick), trains as a teacher and becomes head of a small rural school, a job she loves.
She marries a very rich landowner, gets pregnant, denies to her mother-in-law that she is in that condition, is given a silver Mercedes SL 500 as a present by her husband, decides it’s time to move on and change identity again and invites the new curate (with whom she’s fallen in love) to run away with her. Jackson isn’t directly involved in her story, but her SL 500 narrowly avoids colliding with the car in which he’s been driven on a narrow country road while he’s being followed by a man who has already made two serious attempts to kill him. The first attempt put his car out of action and Jackson is in a much smaller rented car, which partly accounts for the fact that the Mercedes missed him.
Something that I hadn’t noticed before and that surprised me when I was rereading these novels is the prominent part played by dogs. Julia, the youngest surviving daughter of the Land family, is in the habit of asking people “If you were a dog, what do you think you would be?” (p. 110). Naturally, she asks Jackson who replies, without reflection or conviction, a labrador. Julia and her sister Amelia immediately reject this notion and after some discussion settle on a German shepherd.
He’d said “Labrador” because it was the first dog that came into his mind. Jackson didn’t know dogs, he’d never had one, not even as a kid. His father had hated dogs. (p. 114)
Among the characters in Case Histories, Jackson is unusual in this respect. The night Olivia disappeared, she’d gone to sleep in a tent in the garden with Amelia and the family dog, Rascal. (If she’d been taken by an intruder, why hadn’t Rascal kicked up a fuss?) Later, her father, living alone in what had been the family home, got another dog, Sammy, who died not long after him. In spite of his allergies, Theo had got a dog named Poppy for Laura. Poppy died even before Laura did, leaving her “heartbroken” (p. 291). Several times in the book, Julia is likened to a poodle, partly because of her hair.
Living on the streets, Lily-Rose had been accompanied by a dog, who seemed healthy and well fed, notwithstanding her poverty. Caroline’s husband has two labradors, Meg and Bruce, whom he describes as gundogs, and who seem to Caroline to be almost as supid and uncooperative as her stepchildren. Julia’s and Amelia’s older sister, Sister Mary Luke (formerly Sylvia) has a lurcher named Jester who lives with her in the convent.
Jackson may not know (or particularly like) dogs but he finds it convenient to make use of a completely imaginary one when he unearths Olivia’s tiny skeleton in a neighbouring garden. He has promised his informant that he won’t disclose how he knew where to look, so he tells the police that he was walking a dog who “nosed its way into” the neighbour’s garden and “rooted around in the undergrowth, barking it head off until Jackson had come and investigated” (p. 277). When asked by a detective what happened to the dog, Jackson simply says it ran off.
Jackson’s story is, of course, utterly implausible and unconvincing but the detectives don’t press him on it. Having resigned from the same force two years earlier to become a private investigator, he still has a certain amount of credit with them.
He becomes more at home with dogs as the series progresses. At the end of When Will There Be Good News?, he gives Louise Monroe a Border Collie pup, which he later thinks of as “a creature close to his emotional heart” (Started Early, Took My Dog, p. 55). In Started Early …, he acquires a dog which is being mistreated by its self-styled owner. (A move that foreshadows Tracy Waterhouse’s “purchase” of Courtney from Kelly Cross.)
In the subsequent book, Big Sky he is accompanied on his investigations, much of the time, by Julia’s dog, Dido, as well as by their son, Nathan, now an adolescent, while Julia is busy filming a tv series. Dido is “a yellow Labrador, overweight and ageing” (Big Sky, p. 12). Years before, when Jackson had casually suggested that he might resemble a labrador, Julia had been scornful, describing yellow labs in particular as “pedestrian”: Case Histories, p. 110)
It’s often said that people grow to resemble their dogs. In these novels, it seems to be more the case that people buy, or come to have, dogs that throw light on their personalities or characters. By Started Early …, Jackson has recognized what kind of dog he’d be:
Always looking, the sheepdog returning the lost lambs. (Started Early …, p. 260)
Editions: Case Histories Back Bay paperback, 2005 (US edition); Big Sky Transworld trade paperback, 2019; emphasis original.