One of the great pleasures - one of many - for me in reading Kate Atkinson is all the cultural and literary references in her books. It's sort of an "inside baseball" thing, I guess. The cognoscente feel especially smart and privileged to understand the references.
Many of her references relate to television series that any fan of PBS/BBC mysteries will recognize. For example, I think every one of her books that I have read so far has had someone in them watching Midsomer Murders! As a prodigious fan of that series and owner of an (almost) complete collection of DVDs of it, I know just who she's talking about when she refers to those people.
Another television investigative team she mentions in this book is that of Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis, another of my all-time favorites. There are also literary references to everyone from Shakespeare to Faulkner to, in this case, Emily Dickinson. It's from one of Dickinson's poems that the rather weird title of this book is derived.
But enough about cultural references. What about the story itself?
The story is typical Atkinson. It has its roots in an event that happened in the 1970s. A prostitute is murdered and her child(ren?) disappear(s). One of those who finds the body is WPC Tracy Waterhouse. She picks up the child in the apartment where the murder took place, a little boy of four, and cuddles him to comfort him. Then a social worker comes and takes him away and shortly after he is made to disappear, apparently sent to an orphanage under a new name. More than thirty years later, Tracy Waterhouse continues to be haunted by this.
By now, Waterhouse has retired from the police force and is working as head of security at a place called Merrion Centre in Leeds. One day she witnesses a woman being abusive to a small girl, presumably her daughter, in the Centre. Tracy follows the woman, whom she knows is a prostitute from her years with the police, and impulsively offers to buy the small child from her! Tracy Waterhouse's lonely, humdrum life will never be the same.
Also witnessing the abusive event is an elderly woman named Tilly, an actress on a soap opera. Tilly wants to interfere to protect the child but is stopped by her physical frailty and incipient dementia.
In another part of Merrion Centre that day, Jackson Brodie witnesses a hulk of a man with a little dog, a Border terrier. The man has a rope tied too tightly around the little dog's neck and is dragging him along. Jackson follows the man and when he gets to a somewhat more private area, he hails the man, says "On guard!" and punches him hard in the stomach. The man goes down and Jackson takes the dog and walks away.
How the stories of all three of these characters intertwine and how they are all a part of the continuing story that began with the murder of a prostitute back in 1975 is the complicated tale that Atkinson enthralls us with in Started Early, Took My Dog. We learn again, as Faulkner told us, that the past is never history; it is not even past.
Moreover, this book, as all those of Atkinson's that I've read, is full of her sly humor - some of it chuckle-worthy, some of it laugh-out-loud funny. But overall and binding it all together is a sense of morality and intelligence. Jackson Brodie may be a flawed character, as is Tracy Waterhouse and certainly poor Tilly, but all are ethical beings who are driven (and perhaps doomed) by their impulse to protect the weak. Perhaps it is significant that both Tracy and Jackson are former police officers and that Tilly still mourns the death of her black child that she failed to protect.
This was the fourth in the Jackson Brodie saga. Kate Atkinson has now gone on to write other things and it is not clear if she will come back to Brodie. I sincerely hope she does. There is, I think, a lot more development possible here and I'm just not finished reading about him. I would hate to think that my last glimpse of him would be looking at his ringing cell phone and thinking of Emily Dickinson's Hope is the Thing With Feathers.