Book Review: Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

First of all, the title is deceiving. I would hardly expect a crime thriller to be titled Started Early, Took My Dog. Well, this is not the predictable format for thriller novels. The writer is Kate Atkinson, an internationally best-selling author of seven other books, the first of which, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the Whitbread Book of the Year award. Awards aside, Atkinson is an engaging writer with a distinctive style.

About a third of the way through the book, I was wondering how on earth I would respond if someone asked, “What’s it about?” There were so many characters, totally separate from each other, with pages spent on details about their past. But eventually the layers were peeled away and the answer to the question became clear: it’s about a cold case, a murder that happened years ago and affected all the characters, some more than others.

The book opens with one of the main players: Tracy Waterhouse. She is a woman over fifty, thought of as a “butch old battle-ax” because of her bulky size, a former member of the West Yorkshire Police now working as a head of security at the Merrion Centre in Leeds. Tracy spots Kelly Cross, a known prostitute, pulling and dragging a kid behind her. On the spur of the moment, Tracy decides to rescue the young girl, named Courtney, from “the already soiled canvas of the kid’s future.”

The next central character rescues a dog when he sees the owner mistreating the animal. Jackson Brodie is retired, or as he prefers “semi-retired,” former army/police with a few ex-wives. Now a private investigator, he is trying to track down the natural parents of his client Hope McMaster, a New Zealand woman adopted as a child. As he and the dog The Ambassador find answers about the cold case, so do the readers.

But this brief description does not do the novel justice. An involving portrait of each character’s life emerges through a stream of flashbacks. There’s mystery and tragedy of course but also humor and perceptive little nuggets throughout the book. For instance, referring to the girl Courtney, “She was economical with language and why not? Perhaps when you were little you thought you might use up all your words at the beginning and not have any left for the end.” Another one referring to Grant Leyburn, also security at the shopping mall, “Ravaged by acne, if you knew Braille, you could probably have read his face.”

The Wall Street Journal named Started Early, Took My Dog among the best fiction of 2011. Apparently this is Atkinson’s fourth novel starring Private Eye Brodie. This is the first I have read and the others will definitely go on my library reserve list.


Kate Atkinson, Started Early, Took My Dog, published 2011 by Regan Arthur Books/Little Brown and Company, Hatchette Book Group

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