Her reply to my recent query about what she was reading:
Though I’ve just read Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall and have begun Julia Glass’ The Widower’s Tale, both smart and full of observation, I find myself wanting to ruminate more about two crime fiction novels by well-established writers of the genre. Both have detective characters and I can’t help but be interested in what other writers of detective fiction are doing with their detectives.Visit Kathleen George's website.
So it’s Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog, and Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion on my mind at the moment. I am an ideal reader—I get my teeth into a book and keep at it until it’s done. I don’t skip. I can’t skip. I’m sounding out the words. I’m speaking the book and writing it as I read it.
Here are some of the questions that occupied me as I read the Atkinson novel. Why, I kept asking myself, am I bothered by the number of coincidences in the book when I am not bothered by coincidence in Shakespeare or Dickens or for that matter Ibsen? In studying Ibsen as a theatre student I heard plenty about how he pushed coincidence to the point where it becomes fate and not accident. Is Atkinson doing that? I asked myself. But it didn’t quite seem so. She was having fun, I sensed, playing with coincidence. It was meant to be fun for the reader, aha moments. For one thing, she was mixing genre types—for even though she uses her detective figure, Brodie, and even though terrible things have happened to her characters, not much that is terrible is glimpsed from up close. A good portion of the novel is comic in spirit, and the whole comes off (with the quirky characters and the hopeless food and the tea) as something closer to a cozy mystery. Even the title hints at that.
Started Early, Took My Dog was certainly entertaining. Atkinson is a master at drawing character. Her individual lines and observations are wonderful. So I will read her again. But did I believe in the plot? No. Did I believe in the darkness she was referencing? No. This was a bright-spirited mystery, as I’ve said, no close up violence, no significant pain on stage (all of it reported or in the past) even though just about every character had a significant tragic history: rape, murder, suicide, kidnapping, child abuse, fatal accident. It would be hard to find a group of people outside of a therapy session with this much trauma to work through. I would call this a hybrid—cozy disguised as dark mystery.
A very different experience comes with La Plante’s Above Suspicion. She will always be the woman who wrapped us up with her Prime Suspect series. In this case, she’s relying on office politics again, brutal murder again, and suspense built on danger to the protagonist, Anna Travis. In place of Inspector Tennyson’s worldly if weary observations, we get the awkward romantic yearnings of the young rookie Travis. She is easily enamored of old boyfriend, colleague, suspect and she has a longing for her father in whose career footsteps she treads. The story, though sensational crime is what they are investigating, could all be real. The wavering of feeling, the alternating opinions about whether the main suspect is in fact guilty, are part of the drama of the piece. Office workers are mean and nice. Travis is tough and weak. She hates her boss and adores him. Everything is a yes and no. And I think this is La Plante’s meaning, her intention. She kept me reading but with a tinge of frustration at the wavering of just about everybody in the cast. That uncertainty negated real reversals or (to use some theatre terms) peripeties and ironic conclusions. It’s hard to describe this feeling of done-ness that I love when it happens. I don’t mean anything simple. I don’t mean neat endings. I mean that every single moment seems to have been accumulating to this final one and that the hidden math—whatever it is—is accurate.
The Page 99 Test: Afterimage.
The Page 99 Test: The Odds.