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Case Histories December 10, 2007

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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Case Histories gets bandied about a lot as worthwhile reading. Having finished the novel, my impression is that the book is…well, not good per se, but certainly not all that bad either.

First, the good news: Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories is every bit as unconventional a take on the murder mystery genre as many critics suggest. This is a feat of storytelling more than anything else. In typical fashion, the book revolves around several unsolved mysteries that find their way to a private investigator’s doorstep. The novelty, however, lies in the fairly detailed “case histories” that describe the circumstances surrounding these events, not to mention how different characters’ points of view are employed to tell the overall story. The latter help add some depth to the tale, for sure, but it is in the former that Atkinson’s book truly comes into its own. Once the initial three case histories are laid out in the opening chapter, and as these are updated at critical points in the book, it becomes difficult not to have one’s interest piqued.

Now, the bad news: the book has a noteworthy beginning and end, but its middle leaves a lot to be desired. A more apt description would paint it somewhere between “unremarkable” and “aimless”. On one end of this spectrum, the book is perhaps a victim of its own success: because of the reliance on these case histories as a storytelling device, the detective-protagonist does very little sleuthing in the traditional sense. Consequently, the search for clues is largely underwhelming. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum the book is chock full of details about its characters that tend to be unnecessary and border on meaningless. Of these, the ones I object to the most are those that involve sexual practices or orientation (were they even necessary?). My biases aside, a very good case can be made that the same story could have been told with greater finesse.

While Case Histories may not be as groundbreaking a work as those enamored by its charms make it out to be, it nevertheless makes for a reasonable diversion. In my case, I ended up wrapping up the book over a three week period, reading a few pages every now and then when the time would permit. As one prone to either put off reading a book unless it can be finished as quickly as possible, I take this as a positive sign. My take on Kate Atkinson’s work may be less than glowing, but insofar as it was a mildly entertaining read I must say that it did deliver in that regard.

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