Case Histories: the Case for Cross-Genre Novels

I am SO not Ms. Goodreads. Not because I don’t want to be; I just can’t seem to fit it into my schedule. So the book I’m describing, Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories,  is nowhere close to new; it came out in 2004. I’ve had it on my to-read list for a year and a half. But I finally got there, and I want to talk about it.

Spoiler alert: no spoiler alerts will be necessary. Not because this novel isn’t a whodunnit; it is, kinda-sorta. But what’s fascinating about the book to me is Atkinson’s boldness in breaking whodunnit conventions right and left. Janet Maslin in The New York Times describes it as “a compelling hybrid; part complex family drama, part mystery,” and I would add to that, “part message to other authors: don’t be afraid to write the way you want.”

Sure, there’s a P.I. involved–Jackson Brodie, as hunky as his name suggests. Yup, he’s got a dark past and a broken marriage. And yup, Atkinson serves up multiple deaths. Some love interest. Jealousy. But NONE of the plot follows the lines that even masters like Elizabeth George feel bound by.

Filial and paternal love. Hope vs. hopelessness. The ability of the human mind to create its own truth. THOSE are Atkinson’s real themes, and she doesn’t mind messing with the reader’s detective-fiction expectations to delve into them. The result is, indeed, as “compelling” as any potboiler mystery, but the resonance of those “case histories,” those desperately, desperately sad stories of lives destroyed by violence–THAT continues long after the whoddunit questions are answered.

Here’s a link if you want to read about it. But my suggestion? Find a small local bookstore and give your money to them. Amazon is doing just fine.

Anyone else read this book? Want to weigh in? Does the cross-genre thing work for you, or do you like your mysteries to behave like mysteries? What about Atkinson’s other novels? Should I be reading those next?

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