“Case” Study

May 21st, 2005 · 3 Comments
by Booksquare

Genre fiction lives or dies by its structure. No matter what happens in the plot — and there are no rules there, except for a rather loose one about killing cats — the conventions of the genre must be followed. In science fiction, that modern version of the Western, good must triumph over evil. In romance, two people must find each other despite the odds. In mysteries, the puzzle must be solved.

Genre fiction, because of its conventions, is idealistic. Literary fiction, it could be argued, is realistic. Neither idealism nor realism is superior or inferior. It all depends on what you want in a story. Critics of genre fiction seem to be those who don’t fully get that structure doesn’t mean predictable. Especially when an author starts playing with conventions.

That’s when you find books that are, if we may steal a term from Karen Palmer, half lit. Books like Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories follow the conventions of genre too closely to be literary; yet they don’t follow so closely that they can be considered truly genre. The structure of crime fiction is adopted, but Atkinson does a lot of coloring outside the lines. We once suggested (to much horror and shock), that maybe romance novels should play around with the happy ending — Atkinson toys with established notion that crime doesn’t pay, without abandoning her genre’s structure. She takes the definition of solving a crime in a new, invigorating direction. Nobody is lead away in handcuffs, at least on the page.

[Note: if you don’t like spoilers, come back after you’ve read the book.]

Atkinson doesn’t just follow the structure of the crime genre in her book — that would make it interesting, but not something that rises above the rest of the pack. Case Histories is built on a solid, if triangular, structure that is unique to this story. The book focuses on three mysteries which converge at a single point — private investigator Jackson Brodie. His job, ostensibly, is to solve each crime. Unlike in Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer stories, he doesn’t spend too much time sifting clues. His character serves as the anchor for three unrelated mysteries. It is the structure of the story that solves the crimes.

In each of the mysteries, we are presented with the before and after of the crime. The actual event is not detailed. Atkinson then expands her scope, picking up more of the surrounding elements, before contracting her view on the actual moment where foul play happens. Each story unfolds in the same way. This has the strength of creating a rhythm. It has the weakness of lessening the impact when the surprise twist to each mystery is revealed. By the third red herring, you see it coming.

Atkinson deliberately points in her reader in the wrong, but obvious direction, with each mystery. Each supposed villain is a perfectly reasonable, perfectly acceptable criminal. You don’t want them to be anything less than wholly, fully, completely guilty. These are bad people with or without a murder under their belts.

The real killers emerge in their own time. In each instance, the answers aren’t on the page — you won’t blink and miss an important clue, though in the case of Olivia Land, you might have a suspicion or two. The whodunit aspect of the genre is cheerfully abandoned. In this story, it is the “what” that informs the characters; this is exemplified by Theo Wyre’s response to learning the identity of his daughter’s killer. The closure he thought he wanted wasn’t the closure he needed.

One interesting thing about the final, final twist is that is changes the entire nature of the third mystery. The reader believes it’s one thing, is told that it’s another, and is ultimately left wondering about a character’s true motives. After the final page is read, you tend to re-examine the story, wondering what other crises were averted and how deliberate Jackson’s actions were. Did he know more than he shared with the reader? Did he guess something more about Shirley? Did he put the pieces of Tanya’s story together as the rest of us did?

Case Histories has two levels of structure: the structure of the genre and the structure of the story. Had Kate Atkinson abandoned either of her foundations, the book wouldn’t have worked. Had she been less skilled in plotting and character development, the story would have failed. Had she forced herself to color inside the lines, the story would have failed. She succeeded on all levels.

File Under: Books/Mags/Blogs

3 responses so far ↓

  • The Happy Booker // May 23, 2005 at 10:36 pm

    Well done. Mind if I link to this on Wednesday?Just back from travels and still lagging behind over here– Wendi

  • Booksquare // May 24, 2005 at 8:30 am

    Welcome, home — it’s been ridiculously quiet in the ‘hood. One would almost think that people had lives. I can’t imagine…

    Please link. I’d love to hear your thoughts and counters and feints and such. Especially since I’ll be VBT’ing tomorrow. It’s like a day off with HTML.

  • The Happy Booker // May 24, 2005 at 8:38 am

    I am VBT’ing too, though I got a bit nervous about tossing Kevin the keys to my blog–iPod yes, but blog? He’s stopping by in the afternoon (morning to you opposite coasties) to deliver oven-fresh content (i will link to your VBT as well, thanks for the head’s up!). Wendi