Friday, March 09, 2007

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

I bought Case Histories months ago, but didn't start reading it until this week. I have a funny attitude toward books that I buy. I often don't get around to reading them for months, while I assign higher priority to library books which may be of lesser interest, but which come with the urgency of a return date. I also feel as though I must have some guaranteed really good books in my house, unread, in case of emergency. What sort of emergency (all libraries shut down because of bird flu pandemic?) I can't really imagine. But just knowing that in the event of said emergency I would still have plenty to read makes me feel safer. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, the Yarn Harlot, tells of a similar attitude toward yarn hoarding. Were we both isolated by the same emergency, she would have "core stash yarn" available for knitting, and I would have several books to read.

Eventually, however, my pile of core stash books gets large enough that I feel as though it's safe to read one. A very fruitful trip to the library book sale recently yielded ten used novels. No sign of bird flu anywhere? Okay, here we go.

I find Kate Atkinson to be a very engaging writer. I am never bored when I read her work. I may not always get her point, but I enjoy her creative language and whimsical plotting so much that I don't always care. Her book Behind the Scenes at the Museum is one of my all time favorites. Case Histories was very good too, full of Atkinson's trademark quirky characters and their predicaments. Like Behind the Scenes… this book is funny and heartbreaking, sometimes in the same sentence.

Here's something interesting. This book is a crime novel. The protagonist, Jackson Brody, is a private detective of the burned-out ex-cop variety, and in this book he solves several long-dormant mysteries. I see from a recent review that Brody returns in Atkinson's latest book One Good Turn (released in hardback this past October). Could there be any more classic definition of crime fiction than a series of books that feature a grumpy PI who solves cold cases?

Atkinson seems to have embraced the genre wholeheartedly. But neither book is being marketed as crime fiction. They are not shelved with the mysteries in the library or the bookstore. They weren't reviewed in the mystery column in the New York Times book review section, though a review of One Good Turn describes it as a "thriller." What's going on here? It's like the press and the marketing people are politely ignoring Atkinson's departure from standard literary fiction, and are continuing to treat her books as if they are NOT genre fiction. Indeed, a few reviewers are even at pains to point out the differences between this book and conventional mysteries. Carrie O'Grady, writing in The Guardian says "the book is more satisfying than many detective novels." It's as if a mainstream writer (and winner of a prestigious literary award) was encountered scrubbing the floor, and we should all just pretend she's not, or, failing that, explain why even though it looks like she's scrubbing the floor, she's really doing something better. I find this annoying, and I think (hope?) Atkinson would also.

Here's a link to the review in The Guardian.
(Book 11, 2007)

5 comments:

Susan Balée said...

Hi, Becky--

I read both _Case Histories_ and _One Good Turn_ this fall and I reviewed the latter (for The Phila. Inquirer). Although there are elements of detective fiction in both books (the P.I., namely), I would classify them as literary fiction before I'd put 'em in the crime fiction section. Not that there's anything wrong with crime fiction, but it has so many hallmarks of the genre (the 'police procedural' part in partic.) that are either lacking or downplayed in these novels.

I like Ian Rankin's Rebus novels, too, but Atkinson is aiming for different insights, I think. I'd put the two authors on the same shelf if the shelf were marked "Contemporary Scots Writers," but at the Barnes & Noble I'm familiar with, I'd put his series in the crime section and hers mixed in the "Fiction and Literature" (the dubious category B & N gives to books that can't be easily pigeonholed into Romance, Sci-Fi, Crime, etc.). The crime is subordinate to the character development, the insights about the meaning of life.

I liked _Case Histories_ more than _One Good Turn_, but both captured me because they were well-written, and funny as well as insightful. I've really got to find _Behind the Scenes at the Museum_.

I'm glad to have rediscovered your blog, by the way. It's fun to read your comments on books I've read, too.

Becky said...

Susan, I was thinking of Ruth Rendell when I read Case Histories. Rendell certainly puts a high priority on character development and social commentary. I think, if Case Histories were Atkinson's first book, that she would definitely be put with the mysteries.

I've read some of the Rebus mysteries but I've gone off them. So dark.

Maxine said...

I read Case Histories fairly recently too, and enjoyed it. Oddly, in light of your post, I read CH because I had heard it was crime fiction -- I had not read any of Atkinson previously, though I was aware of all the good things said about "....Museum". I think I saw CH more as a modern-day Josephine Tey than Rankin. Rankin's books are so focused on Rebus and his character, whereas I felt CH presented a much wider range of personalities.
After I finished CH, I looked at a few of Atkinson's other books in a bookshop -- I got the impression she's one of those novelists who writes across a range of topics/genres -- and hence difficult for booksellers and publishers to pigeonhole, maybe?
I think "One Good Turn", Atkinson's latest, is a follow-up to CH, though -- so much for that theory!
Nice to see you over here, Susan.

Becky said...

Maxine, I think you are right about her being difficult to pigeonhole. I also think she can be a little difficult for readers to figure out. It's almost like, with CH and OGT she's taking a break from her unpredictability and saying "look, I can do straightforward (crime) fiction too." She may gain readership, and who can blame her for wanting that?

Nonanon said...

Hi!
Have you seen that "One Good Turn" recently prevailed at the Morning News's tournament of books?

Thought you might like that. Evidently I've got to read at least one of Atkinson's novels.

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