I hadn’t read any of Kate Atkinson’s novels before picking this one up, and I initially had confused her with Kate Morton (smaller English settings, British authors named Kate?). I was incorrect but- once I figured out my error- pleasantly surprised by this novel.
Started Early, Took My Dog is the 4th and currently latest installment in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie private detective series, but it stands alone without any loss of comprehension in reading the novels out of order. In addition to her private detective main character, this novel also introduces a retired police officer named Tracy Waterhouse who I’m hoping we’ll get more of in subsequent novels (I’m also just hoping there are subsequent novels…). The novel’s title alludes to Emily Dickenson’s poem By the Sea, which is fitting as Atkinson takes her time to develop her characters and her themes- this is a well-written book.
The novel flips back and forth between three perspectives- Jackson, Tracy and Tilly, an aging actress increasingly affected by dementia. It also flips back and forth in time, from the present to Tracy’s first days on the Leeds police force in the 1970s. In the present day, Jackson is in northern England trying to hunt down the birth parents of his adopted client, Tracy is trying to figure out what with the small child she has just rescued and Tilly is trying to survive the day to day grind. In the 1970s flashbacks, we follow Tracy’s investigation into the murder of a local prostitute. All of these characters and plot arcs do eventually connect, with some poignant and life changing results.
I’ve seen some online reviews complaining that a) Atkinson doesn’t wrap things up neatly; and b) the multiple characters, plots and timelines are confusing. I don’t disagree on the first point, and in fact that’s one of the things I liked about this novel- it felt more realistic to not have all the loose ends tied up in a bow (it also leaves me hopeful that we’ll see more about these characters’ adventures). On the second point, I would agree, although only to a limited extent- in the beginning while I got my bearings as a reader this was confusing, but once I got into the novel I had no issues following along. The changes I would have appreciated were: a) more chapter markings (there were almost none), although this would be more for ease of breaking things up as opposed to figuring out when the perspective switched; and b) less of Tilly (I found her sections mildly irritating and not incredibly useful to furthering the plots). Finally, I do wonder if my expectations were in part why I enjoyed this read so much- instead of a slow-moving character novel, I got a well-thought out detective novel with fully-fleshed out characters.