Monday 27 September 2010

Coincidences and Loose Ends

As I said the other day, I really enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s new book, Started Early, Took My Dog. It’s a very witty piece of work, with several laugh-aloud moments. And although it is hardly an orthodox crime novel, I think we can claim it for the genre. Not just because the main characters are a private eye and an ex-cop, either. Crimes are central to the plot, and there are several mysteries to solve.

And yet. This is certainly not a book in tradition of Golden Age detective fiction. For instance, the plot abounds in coincidences. Time after time, connections emerge between characters, to the extent that one really does have to suspend disbelief. It is a tribute to Atkinson’s skill as a novelist that we are (or, at least, I was) more than happy to do this.

Similarly, a number of issues are left unresolved, or at least are not resolved conclusively, at the end of the book. So, if you like your crime fiction straightforward, it may be that this is not the story for you. Very often, excessive dependence on coincidence, and failure to tie up plot strands, is a mark of sloppy writing. Not here, though, in my opinion. There are very few sentences that one could class as lazy – those that there are stand out, because they are so uncommon, and that’s not something that can be said of many crime novels.

Atkinson is a very different writer from Ruth Rendell – and she is much wittier. But they have in common a willingness to take risks, and to allow coincidence to shape their narratives. Most crime novelists need a bit of help from coincidence now and then, but these are two writers who turn a vice into a virtue. Quite an achievement.


Anonymous said...

Martin - I agree with you. It does, indeed, take writing skill to convince the crime fiction fan to believe in coincidences. And Atkinson is certainly talented enough to carry it off.

pattinase (abbott) said...

And I greatly admire both of them.

Deb said...

I loved the first three Jackson Brodie books and can't wait to read this one; however, I always warn people when I recommend these books that Atkinson is fall less concerned with the "who-dunnit" than she is with the "why-dunnit." In a way, she reminds me of Susan Hill: Their writing styles are not similar, but both of them focus much more on human characteristics and interactions and far less on "mysteries."

Dorte H said...

I am sure there will be some readers who put down the book, angry or frustrated at those coincidences, and I might also do so if I thought it was because Atkinson could not do better. I think she enjoys teasing her readers a bit.

I never really got into her second book, though. It began with a car accident and some man who ran amuck, and for some reason that scene just annoyed me so much that I wanted to join in an kick each and every one of them - well, at least Atkinson got a reaction ;)

The third was just wonderful, and even though I have a terrible memory, I still remember the ending of the first one clearly. Wish I could write like her.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'd love to read something a little different right now...and this sounds like a fun and surprising read. Thanks for the tip!