Kate Atkinsonís writing style has evolved with each novel, the seeds of the future evident in this, one of her earlier endeavors. Case Histories is a study of three individual cases all ultimately linked in the final chapters; the prose is precise and riveting in the beginning.
In each case, a separate tragedy is revealed: a little girl goes missing in the middle of a summer night (1970); an office worker is attacked and killed her first day on the job (1994); and a small family is rocked by sudden bloody violence (1979). There is, actually, a fourth case as well, but the nature of that case comes to light only in the resolution of the others.
Each family struggles with the aftermath of tragedy. Julia, Sylvia and Amelia mourn the loss of their baby sister, Olivia. Morbidly obese Theo cannot move past Lauraís senseless death, aware of her his every waking moment. And what has happened to Michelle, whose husband sprawled mortally wounded on their tiny cottage floor, an axe cleaving his head?
Private investigator Jackson Brodie lives in Cambridge, England, bored with his current surveillance case, a woman suspected of infidelity. He isnít very enthusiastic when others come his way, either. Two middle-aged sisters want to explore their sisterís disappearance thirty years earlier, new evidence come to light since their fatherís death. Theo, the grieving father, still searches for Lauraís murderer, unable to move ahead with his life. A rehabilitated Michelle, now using another name, creates a new existence for herself, unhindered by the treacly past.
Then there is the eccentric old woman who calls on Brodie when one of her many cats goes missing but really needs someone to talk to. At least the cases take Jacksonís mind off his own personal problems - a recent divorce and the fate of his precocious eight-year-old daughter, Marlee. His relationship with his ex-wife is barely cordial, Marlee caught between her father, mother, and the motherís new live-in boyfriend.
The trenchant, moving prose of the case histories becomes tedious and weighty as the novel progresses. The protagonists are most interesting in their moments of crisis, circumstances drawing each into sharp relief. It is the years afterwards, the people Brodie comes to know who expose the small venalities of everyday existence: the bickering between the two sisters, Theoís endless musing about Laura (to the exclusion of his other daughter, Jennifer), and Michelleís cavalier attitude toward the future, her baby daughter in the wind.
Perhaps this is the reality of the matter: life is made of high points and low. Unfortunately, in the resolution of the cases, we must slog through the considerable detritus of the past. Barely more tolerable than his clients, Jackson stumbles on answers more than he exercises his skills, all tied up neatly in one fashion or another by the end. New readers should note that by the publication of When Will There Be Good News?, Atkinson will have redeemed herself many times over for her first rocky starts.