Started Early, Took My Dog

  • Kate Atkinson
  • Reagan Arthur Books
  • 384 pp.

Investigator Jackson Brodie untangles past and present in newest Atkinson mystery.

Reviewed by Ellen Roehl

Fans of Kate Atkinson’s “semi-retired” private investigator Jackson Brodie will be rewarded with Started Early, Took My Dog, the fourth book featuring the enigmatic former policeman. Newcomers to Atkinson’s fiction come up to speed with Jackson’s past, which includes a missing con artist wife, a train crash, estranged lovers, and the omnipresent, unsolved murder of his teenage sister when he was just a boy. This is first-rate literary fiction by an award-winning British novelist who first burst onto the literary scene with Behind the Scenes at the Museum, winner of the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year.

For mystery fans, Atkinson produces a corpse in the opening scene: Readers will enjoy following Jackson around Yorkshire as he collects clues about the cover-up of the murder while working on his own assignment for a client who, coincidentally, is linked to the crime. For those expecting more than just a clever plot from the author, Atkinson also produces an insightful study of the increasing alienation felt by an aging population in England. Started Early tells two stories. The first involves the murder of a prostitute in 1975. The second involves the present-day murder of a prostitute. Jackson comes into the current case when he is hired by Hope McMaster to discover the identity of her biological parents. She has lived most of her life in New Zealand, but was adopted by a couple originally from Leeds, England. In Leeds, Jackson stumbles on the connection between McMaster’s origins and the unsolved 1975 murder.

In 1975, Tracy Waterhouse, “a big, graceless girl,” was new to the police force when she kept asking her superiors unwelcome questions about a young child who was found in a locked apartment with the rotting corpse of his mother, who had been murdered three weeks earlier. In the present-day story, Tracy is still big and graceless. She is single and in her fifties, “with a shell so thick there was hardly any room left inside.” She has recently retired from the force after years of tough police work to take a position as head of security at a shopping mall. Tracy was never satisfied with the motherless boy’s disappearance into the foster-care system. Although the mother was said to be a prostitute, the boy spoke of a father and a sister. Over the years, Tracy has seen many mistreated children she wished she could have helped. When she sees little Courtney mistreated in the mall by Kelly Cross, a well-known prostitute, addict and thief, Tracy impulsively pays cash for the girl and takes off with her. When her car is smashed in an encounter with a deer, Tracy and her new dependent get a lift from Jackson, who has himself “rescued” a Border terrier from a brute who was mistreating the dog.

The paths of Tracy and Jackson continue to cross as consequences of the crime from the seventies keep popping up in present-day events. Jackson tries to interview Linda Pallister, a social worker with “big horsey teeth and rather piggy little eyes,” who knows about the child who went missing after the 1975 murder and also knows the identity of Hope McMaster’s real mother. Tracy also tries to talk to Linda for help with the identity of her newly acquired child, Courtney. We meet some of the police officers who were involved with the investigation of the 1975 murder and who now take an interest in the current murder of another prostitute, who turns out to be the one shown on the shopping mall security tape mistreating little Courtney. Another witness to Courtney’s mistreatment at the mall is “Ten-take Tillie,” an aging actress struggling to remember her lines for a popular TV soap. Dementia has muddled Tillie’s past with the present, much as police actions from the seventies are complicating the present. To further complicate the plot, Jackson is also on a personal quest, searching for Tessa, who seduced and married him, robbed him of his fortune, and then disappeared. This story is familiar to readers of Atkinson’s previous Jackson Brodie mysteries. One of the primary attractions of the earlier books and of Started Early, Took My Dog is the character of Jackson Brodie himself. He is drawn to missing-person stories. His compulsion to solve the unsolved began when his older sister failed to make it home from the bus stop after work one rainy evening when he was a kid.

Atkinson portrays Jackson as a likable guy. Women are attracted to him; so are disasters and criminals. Not known for his small talk – his first wife asked him, “Jesus, Jackson, would it kill you to have a meaningless conversation?” – Jackson tries to make sense of the world in which he finds himself. He keeps looking for answers to both the puzzles in his own life and to the puzzles he is hired to solve. Atkinson skillfully brings the reader along on this bumpy, but entertaining, ride. Started Early, Took My Dog is full of warm, believable characters, such as Tillie and Tracy, who are tangled together in an intricate plot written with Atkinson’s characteristic wit and style.


Ellen Roehl is a retired librarian with a master of arts in Italian and a master of Library Science from the University of California at Berkeley.

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