"Started Early, Took My Dog" (Little, Brown), by Kate Atkinson: "For want of a nail the shoe was lost," an old adage about the unanticipated consequences of minor events, has been a major theme in all four of Kate Atkinson's crime novels featuring a brooding ex-cop named Jackson Brodie. In "Started Early, Took My Dog," the author states the theme explicitly, opening the book by quoting the adage in full, then spends the rest of the novel expounding on it.
Retired cop Tracy Waterhouse and fading actress Tilly Squires both see a prostitute named Kelly Squires roughly drag a child through a shopping mall in Leeds, England. Jackson spots a man abusing a dog. A woman on the other side of the world in New Zealand starts wondering who her real parents were.
When Tracy impulsively shoves a fistful of money at the prostitute in return for the child, when Jackson roughly rescues the dog from its owner, and when the New Zealand woman emails Jackson and asks him to investigate her true identity, they set in motion a series of events that eventually expose a 35-year-old murder and kidnapping, unmask an old police cover-up, trigger several beatings and deaths, and alter the lives of a host of memorable, superbly drawn characters.
As usual with an Atkinson novel, the narration repeatedly jumps between the past and the present, bizarre coincidences abound, and the characters _ both villains and heroes _ stumble about trying, often ineffectually, to figure out what they've gotten themselves into.
Jackson, especially, is overwhelmed by events and never does manage to figure much of it out. After four books, Atkinson's deeply flawed hero has accumulated a heavy burden of personal history. He's continually brooding about his ex-wives, haunted by the long-ago murder of his beloved sister, looking for the woman who stole his heart and his money, and traumatized by a series of violent events including a train accident that nearly took his life.
The new novel doesn't quite measure up to the standard Atkinson set with "When Will There Be Good News?" _ which was not only a great mystery but also one of the finest novels of any genre published in 2008.
This time, the large number of characters are difficult to keep track of at first, and the frequent flashbacks bog down the narration, making the first half of the book sluggish and somewhat difficult to read. But readers who stick with it will be richly rewarded in the last 150 pages.
Atkinson leaves several loose ends dangling and avoids giving most of the characters a neat, satisfactory ending. She likes to say that her characters have no life outside of her books, and she tends to dismiss questions about what befalls them after the last page is turned. But she makes them seem so real that readers cannot help but wonder what will happen to them now.
Bruce DeSilva is the author of the crime novel "Rogue Island," which has been nominated for the Edgar and Barry Awards.