"Yorkshiremen don't do emotional problems. They don't get ill. They don't have breakdowns," says British author Kate Atkinson. She had to explain this to the TV production company adapting her series featuring Yorkshireman Jackson Brodie, an ex-cop turned PI, when they were trying to give Jackson a "problem." But in Atkinson's latest installment, Started Early, Took My Dog (Little, Brown/Reagan Arthur Books), Jackson does exhibit a newfound affinity for poetry.
"Really it was because I always wanted to write a novel that was called Started Early, Took My Dog," says Atkinson. "Someone had to be interested in Emily Dickinson in order to justify that title. And I think Jackson would be, now that, in the fourth book of the series, he's discovered culture." In this entry, Jackson is crisscrossing the U.K. on a pseudo–road trip considering semiretirement and looking for his second wife, who absconded with his money, before a case involving a woman searching for her biological parents brings him back to Yorkshire.
In true Atkinson fashion, Jackson and his investigation are but one piece in the story. As in Case Histories (2004), One Good Turn (2006), and When Will There Be Good News? (2008), Jackson's cases never take precedence over the lives of characters Atkinson introduces along the way. Ironically, for a writer whose novels precisely link disparate plot elements, Atkinson readily admits she's not a formal planner. "I know where I want to begin and the feeling I want to have when I finish," she says.
Yet sometimes there's no way to corral all the characters' lives into a manageable novel, which is how Case Histories became the first in a series. "When I started Case Histories, the characters were all going to Antarctica on a cruise," says Atkinson. "The first part was called ‘Embarkation.' It was supposed to be about everyone preparing to embark on the cruise, but it mushroomed into an entire book. The characters all had these tragedies in their background, and I realized quite far along that they were never going to get on that boat." Once they were grudgingly grounded in the U.K.—"let's stop pretending we're getting on a boat!"—it didn't take much for Atkinson to add another cold case to bring in a PI to solve them.
"I'd wanted to write about a private detective," says Atkinson. "I wanted it to be a guy and I wanted him to be quite formulaic in a way, with the requisite failed marriage, and then I wanted to do something different with him." Jackson is divorced, but he isn't a womanizer or an alcoholic or any other stereotype associated with private investigators, except perhaps "loner." It's as difficult pigeonholing Jackson as a typical PI as it is pigeonholing Atkinson's series as "typical" crime novels. She's often cited as a crossover sensation, a literary novelist (she won Britain's Whitbread Award in 1995 for Behind the Scenes at the Museum) who writes crime fiction. She says she doesn't worry about genre or categorization ("a book's either good or not, it's as simple as that. Dickens wrote crime. Dostoyevski wrote crime").
After one book about Jackson, Atkinson "never intended to write another one." Eventually she wrote two more, but still hadn't gotten Jackson to Yorkshire to investigate a continuing plot thread, the murder of his sister, Niamh, when he was 12 and she was 17. So he's back for Started Early, Took My Dog, though whether he finds resolution is another matter. "His sister's murder is never going to go away," says Atkinson. "It's this thing he carries." But Atkinson is tired of carrying Jackson. "I wanted to write another sort of book, so that's what I'm doing, but having come up for air I'm thinking I can go back to Jackson. I just need to write something else to get a different muscle in my brain working."
It's lucky for Atkinson that the adoring fans who'd eagerly gathered to see her speak at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in San Francisco in October 2010 didn't read this interview first. Atkinson knows what it's like to face off against a horde of Jackson admirers. "When I start explaining the next book, people say, ‘and Jackson's not in it?' and I say no. But I'm a writer. Writers are allowed to do what they want." n
Jordan Foster is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.