Started Early, Took My Dog

by Kate Atkinson

This, Kate Atkinson’s eighth novel, is the fourth to feature private investigator Jackson Brodie. (You can follow his earlier exploits in Case Histories, One Good Turn and When will there be good news?.) For those of you not already in the know, he’s an ex-copper, an ex-husband and a bit of a loner.

boom book reviews - Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson - cover image

In this book he’s working the case of one Hope McAllister, adopted at an early age and now an ex-pat, who wants him to find out more about her natural parents. He gets up one day, goes out for a walk to a park in Leeds and spots a small dog running about doing its doggy thing. Its owner is less impressed with its antics than Brodie, and proceeds to beat it up a bit. Brodie surprises himself by going over to intervene, even more so when he finds himself punching its owner’s lights out and taking the dog for himself.

Brodie is not the sole protagonist in this novel, however. Atkinson introduces us to another ex-copper, Tracy Waterhouse – a bit of a SuBo character (before she was tarted up for TV) – who also finds herself doing surprising things she’d never have pictured herself doing. Tracy lives an ordinary and somewhat lonely life, looking forward to takeaways, chocolate and booze in front of Britain’s Got Talent and dreaming up ways to get her builder to stay when he finishes work on her kitchen, because she’s got used to having a bit of company at home. One ordinary day she pops into town to take out five grand to pay the builder and stock up on snacks. On her way home she sees a known prostitute yelling at a small girl and dragging her through the streets. Tracy surprises herself by going over to intercede, and finds herself volunteering to pay this monstrous woman most of the cash she’s just withdrawn in exchange for the child. And then feels the need to go on the run before anyone starts asking any difficult quesitons, calling in a few favours along the way.

In one way, this is the story of the transformative effect of a stolen small girl and a stolen small dog, respectively, on the lives of these two loner ex-coppers. However, neither Brodie’s dog-stealing antics nor Waterhouse’s child-napping is the central mystery that knits this novel and its diverse storylines together. The central story begins in 1975 in Leeds. A bit of routine police work brings a young WPC Tracy Waterhouse and her male colleagues (introducing a bit of misogynistic Gene Hunt-style policing into the mix) out to a flat to investigate the source of a bad smell. They expect to find an old man who died of natural causes some weeks ago. They don’t expect to find a murdered young woman and even less do they expect to find a young child, surviving amidst the stench and the filth. This brings Waterhouse and Brodie together – and a whole case of supporting characters – as this long-buried mystery begins to unfold and history starts to repeat itself.

Started Early, Took My Dog establishes Atkinson as a great crime writer. But then, her followers won’t be surprised at the calibre of this work – she is, after all, an award-winning author, having won the Richard & Judy ‘Best Read of the Year’ award for her previous novel, When will there be good news?, and the Whitbread ‘Book of the Year’ award for her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

Although this is part of a series of books involving Jackson Brodie it makes perfect sense as a standalone book. And if you haven’t read any others in the series this book is sure to send you trawling Amazon on the lookout for them, because it’s a gripping read that doesn’t take itself too seriously, even though some of the characters do.

It’s not all good though. Just like it became a bit tiresome after a couple of series of Lost being chock-full of flashbacks to the earlier lives of the characters, Atkinson is also a bit heavy on this device. Of course, it’s relevant to the story to understand what was going on thirty years into some of these characters’ pasts, but it can feel a bit cumbersome at times. There also seem to be several characters whose lives we come to know a lot about, in the past and the present, but who seem peripheral to the main story until some resolution comes near the end; it sometimes feels like Atkinson goes a bit overboard in putting narrative flesh on the bones of some of these characters whose contribution to the plot is so minimal. There’s a lot of superfluous-to-the-story-at-hand information about Jackson Brodie and his relationships with his ex-wife and the mother of his child – no doubt continuing his story, the narrative of which spans several books – but seems tangential and out of place here. It’s also a bit irritating that Atkinson seems to leave a bunch of seemingly important questions unanswered – for example, whose child is the one that Tracy runs off with? Who was responsible for what happened to the woman she took her from, and why did they do that to her?

All told, Started Early, Took My Dog is a book that should be judged by its cover. It’s got a really nice cover. And it’s a really good book. It’s not perfect, but it’s sure to keep those with a predilection for crime thrillers and mystery novels out of trouble for a bit (unless, of course, they find inspiration within its covers to transform their ordinary lives by doing a spot of child- or dog- snatching)…

three out of five