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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Case Histories

Kate Atkinson

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To purchase Case Histories

Title: Case Histories
Author: Kate Atkinson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004
Length: 310 pages
Availability: Case Histories - US
Case Histories - UK
Case Histories - Canada
Case Histories - India
La Souris Bleue - France
Die vierte Schwester - Deutschland
I casi dimenticati - Italia

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Our Assessment:

A- : very well-written, consistently entertaining

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly A 12/11/2004 Jennifer Reese
The Guardian A 2/10/2004 Carrie O'Grady
The Independent . 10/9/2004 Colin Greenland
The LA Times . 12/12/2004 Scott M. Morris
London Rev. of Books . 23/9/2004 Tessa Hadley
New York . 6/12/2004 Boris Kachka
The NY Times A 15/11/2004 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 5/12/2004 Jacqueline Carey
People A 13/12/2004 Vick Boughton
San Francisco Chronicle A 21/11/2004 Timothy Peters
The Scotsman . 25/9/2004 David Robinson
The Spectator . 4/9/2004 Digby Durrant
Sunday Telegraph . 29/8/2004 Katie Owen
TLS . 10/9/2004 Heather O'Donoghue
The Washington Post . 19/12/2004 Jeff Turrentine

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but most very taken by it

  From the Reviews:
  • "Atkinson's world is supersaturated with this kind of flesh-crawling sexual violence. Evil is not a tumor that can be neatly excised by nabbing a few perverts: It's a chronic, systemic disease. And yet this dark novel is also a delightful, fascinating, and bitingly funny read." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Case Histories is essentially a balancing act, with evil and ignorance stacked opposite truth and healing. In this aspect the book is more satisfying than many detective novels - not just because it is so well written, but in its defiant refusal to let the dark side win the day merely for the sake of looking gritty and "real". Of course, Case Histories is not all sunshine and trite happy endings, but this is a book that rests on a strong and well-constructed moral framework, and is all the more powerful for it. (...) (E)veryone who picks it up will feel compelled to follow Case Histories through to the last page - and not just for closure." - Carrie O'Grady, The Guardian

  • "Atkinson is always perceptive and engaging, and this time perhaps a degree less antic in her postmodern playfulness." - Colin Greenland, The Independent

  • "Some of the other characters are more fully turned out, and the multipronged plot is ingeniously tied up. But in the end this is a clever detective novel, no less but no more." - Boris Kachka, New York

  • "Case Histories is a wonderfully tricky book, much more so than even the three-crime structure indicates. To read it is to enter a hall of mirrors. (...) Plot-driven as Case Histories is, it works because Ms. Atkinson sets up her surprises so well. (...) (T)he lifelike characters in Case Histories are what make it such a compelling hybrid: part complex family drama, part mystery. It winds up having more depth and vividness than ordinary thrillers and more thrills than ordinary fiction, with a constant awareness of perils swirling beneath its surface." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "Case Histories is so exuberant, so empathetic, that it makes most murder-mystery page-turners feel as lifeless as the corpses they're strewn with." - Jacqueline Carey, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Each character is multilayered, and none gets short shrift. But just as gratifyingly, each case is a real mystery with twists, surprises and intriguing resolutions. Is it too much to hope that we haven't seen the last of this singular sleuth ?" - Vick Boughton, People

  • "(B)rilliant and engaging (.....) (I)n an era when sophisticated, literary novels are all too often about nothing but existential issues -- nihilistic disaffection -- Case Histories stands out as a wistful, heartbreaking and hopeful novel about real disasters. Ultimately, it's a novel with a deep understanding of the fragility of existence and the will to survive" - Timothy Peters, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "There are moments like that in Case Histories when your laughter is suddenly stilled, and you almost feel guilty for it in the first place. Then Atkinson turns the tables, shows you a death you donít care about and turns it into the blackest comedy, and youíre laughing again. And even though the ending ties up all three stories with an impossibly optimistic flourish, thatís not what you remember when you close the book. Instead itís a curious feeling you hardly ever experience on finishing a crime novel: as though youíve laughed out loud in church." - David Robinson, The Scotsman

  • "All families have things to hide but few can match the horrors that come to light in Atkinsonís improbable, convoluted but very lively saga of murder, incest, child abuse and the 'sado-masochistic, homo-erotic nonsense' of religion. And itís also often very funny, which books full of such things arenít supposed to be, though this never worried Muriel Spark very much." - Digby Durrant, The Spectator

  • "(H)er best book yet. (...) For all the shocking deeds in these pages, however, Atkinson has not lost her wicked sense of humour, her delight in eccentricity, or her ability to conjure with steely accuracy the daily realities of imperfect relationships" - Katie Owen, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Atkinson is unexpectedly good at straight unpleasantness; not only the distress of the victims of crime, but also the misery of the knock-on effects on their lives. (...) Atkinson is at heart a comic novelist, who explores the relationship between comedy and crime. In Case Histories, though, the two are not always fully reconciled. Sometimes a comic possibility undermines the seriousness of the issue." - Heather O'Donoghue, Times Literary Supplement

  • "But if you read the novel instead as a multifaceted character study grafted onto the detective-thriller format, it's a rousing triumph, thanks in whole to Atkinson's boundless sympathy for her funny, pathetic, three-dimensional and fully human creations." - Jeff Turrentine, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Case Histories is, nominally, a mystery novel. Three cases -- unsolved (or unresolved) crimes that happened years and decades earlier -- are presented, the same private investigator, Jackson Brodie, now hired to look into them. He does investigate, more or less, and what actually happened and who was actually responsible in each of the three cases is eventually revealed, but the answers are almost the least of it. Only almost, because they are also clever and satisfying, but it is the survivors' stories that are the most compelling.
       The first case involves the disappearance of the youngest of four sisters, Olivia, in 1970. The second the brutal murder of Laura, a girl just set to begin university in the offices of her lawyer-father on her first day of work there in 1994. Finally, there is the 1979 murder of Keith Fletcher, his wife -- and the mother of their baby daughter -- having taken an axe to him.
       Some mystery surrounds each of the cases. Olivia was never found, dead or alive. Laura's murderer was never identified. And while the murder of Keith seems clear enough (and his wife was locked away for it), the child was put in the custody of Keith's parents and all trace of her has, by now, also gone.
       Two of Olivia's sisters bring her case to Brodie now because their father has died and a stuffed animal that Olivia had with her when she disappeared -- and that no one could find afterwards -- has turned up among his things, suggesting he was in some way involved.
       In all these cases, those left behind have clearly been damaged by the experience. After Olivia's disappearance -- and their mother's death, shortly afterwards --, the remaining children enjoyed a fairly miserable life with their unpleasant father, and haven't turned into particularly well-adjusted adults. The two sisters who approach Brodie, Julia and Amelia, are very different, but it's the third, Sylvia, that ultimately took the most radical step, becoming a nun.
       Even more obviously, Laura's father, the terribly overweight Theo, hasn't been able to get over her death, and is still wracked by guilt, always mourning his lost and much-loved daughter. Like several other characters that figure in the novel, he's essentially friendless, isolated and alone.
       Brodie, ex-army and ex-police force, is fairly isolated himself. Divorced, the light of his life is his eight year-old daughter, but his cases are a constant reminder of how vulnerable innocence is.
       Atkinson weaves a fairly complicated tapestry out of these diverse strands, jumping in fairly short chapters from past to present and from case to case -- with some chapters also devoted to characters whose role in the larger picture isn't immediately clear. There is, inevitably, some overlap (and some incidents are described twice-over, from the different perspectives), and even if not all of this is entirely plausible, it can pass.
       If there's any common thread it is that individuals are alone -- and yet each here finds and makes connexions that provide a final, necessary support. Reaching out is rewarded, too -- in the case of Brodie perhaps in a way that is too good to be true, but still fits with the general feel of the book: despite so much loss and isolation (and a good bit of ugliness), this is a consistently uplifting tale.
       The stories are compelling enough -- if occasionally a bit much to keep track of -- but it's the details and character portraits that Atkinson manages particularly well. There's a bit much sketched out -- not all of this detail seems necessary -- but she is so good at providing a few details to suggest much of a person's life or character, or describing conversations or thoughts that one hardly minds. Frequent parenthetical comments also nicely add another layer to the descriptions (while she doesn't let herself get entirely carried away by that ploy).
       Case Histories is a very good book. The occasional small wrong touch stands out all the more because it is so well-conceived and written, and if parts stretch it all too far (the attempts on Brodies's life, for one) and the resolution is just a tad too unbelievably agreeable, the bulk of the book is an exceptional entertainment.
       Certainly recommended.

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Case Histories: Reviews: Case Histories - the TV series: Kate Atkinson: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       British author Kate Atkinson was born in 1951. She has written several acclaimed novels.

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© 2005-2021 the complete review

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