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.