Case Histories (Jackson Brodie 1) by Kate Atkinson

Nor fish nor fowl nor good red herring…

😐 😐

A child goes missing one night from the tent where she is sleeping. A girl is murdered, seemingly as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A young mother is driven to her wits’ end by her fractious baby and we all know what happens during periods of temporary insanity. These three cases from years ago are suddenly all brought to the door of ex-police detective and current private investigator Jackson Brodie, and he must try to find the explanations his clients are seeking while juggling his own messy private life.

The first three chapters of this are stunningly good, as Atkinson lays the groundwork to each of the three cases. The last few chapters are fairly good as she wraps them all up, not neatly nor particularly skilfully, but at least to a reasonably satisfying level. The vast swathe of repetitive sex and death obsessed tedium in the middle is unfortunate.

I realise that many people love this book, so obviously as always this is merely my subjective opinion, but I found it a complete mess. I’m not at all sure what Atkinson was attempting to do with it. It’s certainly not a crime novel – there is almost zero detection in it. Brodie simply wanders around bemoaning his lot and eyeing women up to see if they’re sexually attractive, then jumps miraculously to the right conclusions. Well, I say miraculously, but actually since I’d already guessed the solution to two of the cases hours earlier, maybe it wasn’t that amazing after all.

It’s not really insightful enough to count as literary fiction either – I hesitate to use the word banal, but I fear it is the one that was running through my mind while I was reading. Contemporary fiction? Well, perhaps, but it really has nothing much to say about contemporary society. There’s plenty of sex and sexual fantasies, but more in the “ooh, aren’t I naughty and daring for writing dirty words and talking about naked bodies” sense than anything that could push it into the romance category! There were moments when I wondered if Atkinson had been spending too much time with fourteen-year-olds since most of her adults seemed to think like them.

Book 1 of 20

The number of deaths described is extraordinary. Not just the cases, but nearly every character’s fathers, mothers, children, siblings, pets – all dead, all dead! Murders, suicides, cancer, road accidents – life in Cambridge is clearly nasty, brutish and short. It gives new meaning to the phrase “ghost town”. And of course, we get all the grief to go along with all these deaths, which isn’t what you’d call cheery exactly. And for those who have managed so far to maintain a precarious hold on life, their loving relatives spend all their time imagining all the horrible deaths that might happen to them. Jackson himself must imagine at least five horrible deaths for his daughter and can barely look at a piece of grass without seeing it as a potential deathbed for her.

The characterisation is reasonably good of a few of the main characters, but there is also what feels like a cast of thousands who never become filled out in any way, so that I found myself having to search for previous mentions of them to find out who they were when they suddenly re-appeared briefly a hundred pages later. To be honest, it felt to me like three pretty good short stories that for some reason Atkinson had clumsily attempted to tie together to make a novel, filling all the rest of the space with weary and pointless meanderings. And there’s a limit to quite how often coincidence can be used before it becomes annoying.

Kate Atkinson

Nope, I don’t get it. Clearly other people are seeing something in this that I’m not. The potential is there – Jackson could be a decent character if he ever stopped brooding about sex and death and did a bit of detecting, and the basic stories are certainly interesting even if the resolutions are weak. However, since I foolishly requested the next three books in the series from NetGalley on the assumption that I was certain I’d love them, I’ll read the next one in the hopes that the series improves, although my expectations are now in the basement. Apologies to all who loved it!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.

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69 thoughts on “Case Histories (Jackson Brodie 1) by Kate Atkinson

  1. At some point I read One Good Turn but have never felt compelled to return to this series. Sacrilege, I know, but I think there was just too much extraneous stuff.

    • I’m afraid I like crime novels to have at least an element of detection in them – well, if the main character is a detective! I’ll have a go at book 2, but if it’s more of the same I can see it hitting the abandoned pile quite quickly…

  2. I read Case Histories before I began my blog and so, of course as I didn’t write about it I can’t remember anything about it. I must have liked it though as since then I’ve read the next 3 of her Jackson Brodie books – and enjoyed them. They are all complicated with too much detail, background information and flashbacks holding up the action – but I find them irresistible because I have to find out what happened and work out the puzzles. I hope you find the next three books more to your liking. I think my favourite is When Will There Be Good News.

    • I did think the underlying stories were interesting and those first chapters were brilliant. But oh, that long middle! And the lack of detection really annoyed me, considering the main character is a detective! But hopefully I’ll do better with Book 2 now that I’ve adjusted my expectations downwards – it can only surprise me in a good way…

  3. I am not all familiar with this author or the series. Goes to show what a risk it is to grab an entire series based on someone else’s opinion, huh? *coughShardlakecough* Sorry this didn’t work for you but your review made me chuckle so there’s that.

  4. FF, I know just what you mean. I have dutifully read the series and will no doubt get round to Big Sky when it comes out tomorrow, but I am still trying to understand just what the attraction is. I much prefer Atkinson’s other work, although even that seemed to falter with Transcription.

    • I used to enjoy her early stuff but haven’t read any of her books for years now. I thought she’d just slipped off my radar, but now I’m wondering if I actually made a decision that I didn’t like her style. I’ll have a go at Book 2 but I suspect if it’s more of the same it’ll hit the abandined pile quite quickly…

  5. I’m sorry to hear you didn’t like this one better, FictionFan. I don’t know if you’ve read One Good Turn; but, at least in my opinion, Brodie is a better character there. As far as the story itself goes, I know what you mean about middles of stories that don’t go anywhere. It’s hard to persist with a book when you feel like you’re wading through it. Hopefully your next outing with Atkinson (if there is one) will be better.

    • I think One Good Turn is the next one in the series so I’ll be trying it in a few weeks time. I did think Brodie had potential as a character, so it’s good to hear you think he’s better developed in that one. I was so sure I’d love these, but oh, I got so fed up with that long middle where nothing happened for hundreds of pages… But just think! If I abandon books 2, 3 and 4, my TBR will be practically empty… 😉

  6. I read this many years ago and I think I remember liking it but I also remember nothing about it! I’m not sure I followed up with anything else in the series either. And this really made me laugh: “ooh, aren’t I naughty and daring for writing dirty words and talking about naked bodies”! Thanks for that 😂

    • Hahaha! I do get grumpy when a book lets me down! Maybe in the next one they’ll either get around to having sex like adults, or stop thinking about it every two seconds… either would be an improvement… 😉

  7. I know I read this quite awhile back, but can’t seem to remember much about it. I’m assuming it didn’t much impress me and from points made in your review, I can understand why.

    • I must say I think it’s very forgettable! The three crimes had so much potential but they were drowned under all the tedious nothingness of the middle. Oh well!

  8. I read an earlier book by this author, but can’t recall the name right now. Not a part of this series. I’ve thought about trying the series, but somehow it has not made it’s way onto my list. Have you watched the TV adaptation? I think my husband and I tried the first episode and never went back. I’ll probably skip this series. There are so many more that I love and have trouble keeping up with. Not every one is going to suit all of us, right?

    • I read a few of her earliest books but then kinda lost touch with her – I’m now wondering if even back then I eventually decided her style didn’t work for me. But it was before I started reviewing so I really can’t remember. I think I also watched the first episode and then gave up, but then I watch very little TV these days, so that doesn’t mean much. Ha – I’m seriously wishing I hadn’t requested the entire series now… 😉

  9. Hmm, I can see why you weren’t enamoured by this. I looked back at my review because how you describe this didn’t impinge on my memory of it; but it may be significant that I entitled my review ‘Vicarious voyeurs’. I see there is a new Jackson Brodie out but I’ve still to read two of Atkinson’s other titles in this series. I’ll bear your strictures in mind when I eventually get round to them! https://wp.me/p2oNj1-2gU

    • Part of my grumpiness came from the fact that I do expect crime novels starring a detective to actually have some detection in them! If this had been billed as something else (though I’m not sure what, exactly) I might have been more forgiving. Yes, it’s because the new one’s due out that the publisher out the entire series on NetGalley. I wish I’d read Book 1 before requesting the other three… 😉

      • I think that Atkinson is more inclined to examine psychological flaws in her characters than worry about the way detective novels are supposed to work! And, of course, many readers were taken by Jason Isaacs as Jackson Brodie in the TV adaptations though, never having watched them I can’t vouch for their effect on viewers’ heart rates…

        • I’m tempted to watch the TV version just to see how they made it work. They must surely have made TV Jackson actually do some detecting which would be a major improvement!

          • Atkinson is, as far as I can work out from my limited reading, all about people, their personalities and their relationships, with plotting and a plausible narration coming a distant second.

            I may be doing her an injustice here, but I guess there must be good reasons why she is highly regarded and that I’ve missed a crucial point about her fiction. I enjoyed Transcription very much but looking back on it I suppose that as a thriller-cum-spy story it’s a bit of a sprawling mess, a narrative which may strike some as inconsequential.

            Interestingly, having just watched Stephen Poliakoff’s Summer of Rockets on BBC tv (side note: our son was part of the film crew on the production) I felt the same about it as I did about Transcription — both were a tour de force, with strong hints of semi-autobiography and Cold War fears about them to suggest authenticity, but ultimately slightly distancing.

            I haven’t really explained myself clearly, mainly because I’m not sure what I’m trying to say!

            • I enjoyed her first few books but it was before I began reviewing, so I now can’t remember if there was a reason I stopped reading them – maybe that I just lost interest in her style or something. Her most recent fiction hasn’t tempted me much but I did like the sound of Transcription. Reviews have been very mixed though, so I keep putting it off, and now I’m thinking maybe Atkinson and I simply aren’t destined to be friends!

              Oh, I watched and enjoyed the first episode of the Poliakoff and then, as always, forgot to watch the rest – I’m hopeless with TV series. I’m kinda ambivalent about him – I’ve loved some of what he’s done in the past (especially Shooting the Past, which I thought was wonderful) and been left underwhelmed by the rest. But I really must try to get back to this one before it disappears from the iPlayer.

            • Yes, I remember Shooting the Past, my first Poliakoff, especially as Lindsay Duncan (whose breakout role this might have been) had shared a flat with Emily before we married, when Lindsay was a drama student at Bristol Old Vic theatre school.

              I enjoyed Transcription, though for a long time I couldn’t see where it was heading. The twist, and the underlying symbolisms and themes were what made it work for me, after a fashion.

            • Oh, really? I love Lindsay Duncan – one of my favourite actresses (or actors, if she prefers), partly because she often takes on rather quirky roles. I thought she was wonderful in GBH, for instance.

            • It sounds intriguing! I’m hopeless at watching films these days – my watchlist is nearly as long as my TBR – but it has been duly added! Thank you.

  10. Well, the good thing about your expectations being in the basement is that the next books might actually exceed them!
    I read this a long time ago, and I have to say that I remember thinking it was on the boring side and have never been tempted to pick another Brodie novel since. (So you are not alone!) I will be curious now to hear what you think of the others.
    Love this line: “Jackson himself must imagine at least five horrible deaths for his daughter and can barely look at a piece of grass without seeing it as a potential deathbed for her.” hehe!

    • Haha – very true! They can only surprise me in a good way! 😀

      My real problem is that it just doesn’t read like a crime novel. The underlying stories were interesting but oh, all that time spent inside Jackson’s dull head was penance! Maybe in Book 2, he’ll actually do a bit of detecting and get his mind off his problems. Haha! I do get grumpy when a book lets me down… 😉

  11. Loved reading your thoughts on this, FF. You make excellent points. I’ve not tried this author and after I see five glowing reviews, I run across one like yours, and it puts me back to square one with it.

  12. I had a bit of a problem with this book too. In fact I put it aside and left it for a few weeks, then I restarted it from the beginning as an audiobook. I listened to it as I did other things, cutting the grass, driving to the store or library, and whatever else came up. Finally I started to get it. I ended up switching back and forth between the ebook and the audiobook and finally finished it. I kind of liked the many different plot lines twisting around and coming together in the end. The next book in the series has the same grapevine style, but may work a little better for you.
    BTW: I decided to read these because you had said that you were going to read the first three in the series. I was waiting to see what you thought of them.

    • Haha – now I feel guilty! 😉 But I’m glad you eventually enjoyed them. I did like the three main storylines and I thought the first three chapters setting each of them up were great, but all that nothingness in the middle where Brodie does no detecting drove me mad – and I get grumpy when I’m mad! However, my expectations for the next one are now so low that it can only surprise me in a good way, so I have my fingers crossed. I really expected to love these. Oh well!

  13. I read this ages ago & so of course I can’t remember a thing about it. I enjoyed it though, because I’ve read all the Brodie series, although like Cafe Society I prefer Atkinson’s other stuff. Having said that, I’m just about to start Transcription & that’s got very mixed reviews….

    I do enjoy your low-rating reviews FF 😀

    • Haha! I do get grumpy when a book lets me down… 😉

      I still feel as if I ought to like these, being almost sure I enjoyed some of her earlier books. But I’m now wondering if I actually stopped reading her because I decided her style didn’t work for me – I read them long before I started reviewing so can’t remember what I thought! Yeah, I’ve seen very mixed reviews of Transcription too – hope you fall on the “love it” side…

  14. How I love reading your reviews when you don’t particularly like the book, FF!! I giggled most of the way through this one — from what you’ve said, I can’t imagine feeling any compunction at all to read it for myself. Thank you, my friend!!

    • Haha! I do get grumpy when a book lets me down… 😉 This had so much potential but oh dear, the waffling! And the misery! Book 2 can only be better… surely… 😱

  15. I’ve read the first three books in this series and loved them all, but it seems I’m in the minority here! The second and third books have a slightly more conventional structure than this one so maybe you will like them better. If not, I hope you have more luck with the rest of your 20 Books of Summer! 🙂

    • Ha! I think I’ve scared away most of the people who loved them, because you’re definitely in the majority on this one! Now that my expectations are much lower, maybe the other books will surprise me in a good way – I still feel as if I ought to love these…

  16. Oh dear, my heart sank when I saw those two sad faces. But I always enjoy your reviews, refreshing honesty and it’s always clear what you liked and didn’t like about a book. I have read this twice and loved it both times, though it has been 9 years since I last read it. There are some very very sad parts to it for sure. Honestly, I don’t remember any of the sexy bits, LOL. Now I think maybe I should reread it just to make sure it’s still one of my favorites! 🙂

    • Haha! I knew you’d said you loved this and was hoping my review might sneak past without you spotting it… 😉 I’m sure the major part of my problem was that it just doesn’t read like a crime novel – a main character who’s a detective really ought to do a bit of detecting! But I’m definitely in the minority on this one, so I do hope my comments won’t stop you loving it again on a re-read – just wipe my grumpiness from your memory banks before reading… 😀

      • Maybe that’s it… when I first read it years ago I don’t think it was even categorized as a crime novel, really. And in my library system it’s shelved in fiction instead of mystery. So maybe that’s part of the reason it resonated with me… no expectations! 😁 Don’t worry, with my short attention span these days… ooh, shiny thing! What were we talking about? 😉

  17. Hoo boy, this sounds like a doozy, a negative one that is. Too bad you have so many more coming your way, I hope the next ones are better! I seem to recall Transcription having alot of unnecessary and underdeveloped characters actually, now that you point that out…

    • I haven’t read any of her books for years and I’m now wondering if I actually decided at some point that her style didn’t work for me. But I do remember enjoying her earliest ones. This will be a lesson to me not to request a whole series till after I’ve read one at least… 😉

  18. I think the 2nd Brodie book is much better organised than the first – I read them out of order years ago & wouldn’t have carried on with the series if I’d read the first one first !!
    I’ve read the whole series now, despite also being a grumpy crime reader who prefers detective books to contain actual detecting, because I found myself wanting to know how Brodie’s life & cases unfold. If you want to compare this to a really ‘depressing’ but totally addictive ‘detective’ series, may I recommend Ken Bruen’s disaster prone Jack Taylor series which is toe-curling ‘literary detection’ at its very finest (there’s a good but not as good as the books TV version too).

    • Well, that’s cheered me up a bit – I’d still like to like this series if I can! I don’t know how I’ll feel about Brodie’s life though. Sometimes I like seeing a detective develop – like Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan for instance – but usually I like detectives like Poirot who just exist without changing and solve crimes! Hahaha – I shall investigate Ken Bruen, but I must say toe-curling and depressing doesn’t sound too inspiring… 😉

  19. How disappointing – I’ve recently had a couple of attempts at Transcription (my first Atkinson) and couldn’t get into it for much the same reasons that you described here. I hope you enjoy the next ones more!

    • I haven’t read any of her recent books but I do remember enjoying some of her earliest ones. Though I’m now wondering if I stopped looking out for her because her style was annoying me… I wish I had a better memory for books! However, maybe I’ll surprise myself by loving book 2… fingers crossed!

  20. I have loved Atkinson’s other fiction and I keep picking up her Jackson Brodie series and then putting it back because somehow it just doesn’t appeal. I think you’ve just confirmed that I’ll stick to Atkinon’s non-mystery books.

    • I loved her earlier stuff and then stopped reading her, so long ago I now can’t remember if there was a reason or if I just kinda drifted away. Transcription appeals to me but I’ve seen very mixed reviews for it – I think I’ll see how I get on with book 2 of this series before committing to more Atkinson!

  21. Oh dear what a disaster when you picked the entire series in one go! I did like this series although it is years since I read it – in fact more years than I thought! I liked the down the rabbit hole approach at the time and all the little stories which I do find appealing but you are probably right in that I wouldn’t class this as crime fiction per se.

    • Haha – I know! Typical me!! Still, maybe I’ll get on better with the next one – it seems to be set in Edinburgh so maybe that will interest me more. Though looking at the blurb makes me think it’s another one that’s not going to have much actual detection in it. Oh well!

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