Kate Atkinson's novel Case Histories opens with three unsolved mysteries—a little girl missing for more than 30 years, a decade-old random murder, and an inexplicably bloody case of postpartum depression—and though the book ends with answers given and murderers named, resolutions are harder to come by. That's primarily because Case Histories isn't a detective story per se. Atkinson's Cambridge-based private-eye hero Jackson Brodie methodically chases leads and digs up clues, but Atkinson often withholds Brodie's discoveries from the reader, while instead describing the ways survivors of violence make it through year after year.

Case Histories shifts perspectives and jumps around overlapping timelines, getting into the head of the diligent, heartbroken Brodie for a chapter, and then living with his employers—like morbidly obese, chronically depressed ex-lawyer Theo Wyre, whose grown daughter was stabbed to death by a stranger. Atkinson saves most of her empathy for the perpetually bickering Amelia and Julia Land, who get a lead on their long-lost sister when they find her favorite stuffed animal in the desk of their unloved and unmourned late father. Julia's simmering sexuality irritates the prudish Amelia, and Atkinson spends almost a third of her 300-page novel detailing their copious hang-ups and regrets.


Much of Case Histories involves unrequited love and fractured relationships, which Atkinson considers just as traumatic as death. Her characters marry out of fear, divorce out of selfishness, and grieve out of need. Even while Brodie puts together the pieces of his client's scattered puzzles, he worries what someone like Theo Wyre will do when he doesn't have the pain of his daughter's unsolved murder to keep her memory alive. So, like Brodie, Atkinson shows no sense of urgency in Case Histories, preferring to poke thoughtfully at bruises rather than let them heal. For all its preoccupation with sorrow, though, the book is light, funny, and poignant—leisurely, but never wasteful. It's like an object lesson on how to live with dying.