Book Review – Started Early, Took My Dog

Book Review – Started Early, Took My Dog

Title – Started Early, Took My Dog

Genre – Crime fiction

Author – Kate Atkinson

Published – 2010

Enjoyment rating – 7/10

*       *       *

This novel is a whodunit (indeed, a whodunexactlywhat), combined with a pursuit thriller and leavened with plenty of humour.

A whodunit requires a good plot, and this novel certainly ticks that box. There are numerous characters, and the mystery to be solved is how those figures were involved in a murder and a kidnapping. To make the mystery more difficult, these events took place some thirty years earlier. The novel is told with flashback as a means of revealing the characters and motivations of the principal actors. We know the outline of the solution from early on, but there’s plenty of satisfying detail to hold the interest.

In addition, there is a storyline set entirely in the present day. One of the principal characters, Tracy Waterhouse, was a rookie police officer at the time of the earlier crime; she was one of the officers attending the scene. In a not quite entirely unbelievable way Tracy acquires a small girl, and is then pursued both by those investigating the old crime and those trying to cover it up.

Just in case this isn’t enough for you, the novel is laced with plenty of humour. This is not humour that raises a quiet smirk; it’s laugh out loud stuff. I couldn’t help reading out the funniest bits to anyone who would listen.

The three strands of this novel were ample to pull me in and keep me reading, with the humour ensuring that I enjoyed what I read. The solving of the mystery involved some bloodshed, but this was set in the context of a fairly upbeat emotional resolution to the storylines. Even the obligatory nods in the direction of nihilism were faced down by the author’s fundamental optimism.

The novel has a substantial sub-plot involving an actress, Tilly, who has passed her prime. What does she add to the story? Her story collides with the main plot, but I’m not convinced that this is necessary. In retrospect, I realise I skim-read the passages in which she appeared.

I wasn’t completely happy with characterisation, either. Most of the characters were sketched in with little detail.

The main character (in terms of words devoted to him) is a private investigator named Jackson. Although the author supplies plausible motivations to drive his actions, I don’t find them convincing. I don’t really sympathise with him, either. I don’t wince when he gets beaten up.

Tracy Waterhouse, though, is a different matter. She engaged me from the start, with her laconic humour, and her plethora of little vices. There’s something immediately endearing about a person who regularly buys Thornton’s Viennese truffles as a treat. Her actions are highly unlikely and yet they feel believable, in part because her motivation is the desire to have a child.

She acquires a child, and what a child she is! Wonderfully idiosyncratic in the way of all children everywhere. I could believe in her, no trouble at all.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and it kept me reading which is the first requirement of a novel. Profound it is not. Entertaining it certainly is.

Friday Fictioneers – A life for a life

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story, based on a photoprompt, with a beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (the blue frog) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

FF - A life for a life 190213

PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carroll

A Life for a Life

Once they were past the entrance, only the flimsy door of the apartment kept the gang out.

Robin cowered, white faced in the corner. Magdala yelled down her phone to the police.

“They’re here! Be quick!”

The door burst inwards, hurling screws from its hinges like shrapnel.

Sunlight from the window flared from a knife. A man leapt at Robin.

With a shriek of defiance, Magdala threw herself in front of her lover and felt the blade bite deep into her chest.

“Stop!” called the gang leader. “Let him go. She’s paid. A life for a life is enough.”

Friday Fictioneers – Pillars of the Community

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story, based on a photoprompt, with a beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (the blue frog) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

FF - Pillars of the Community 180314

PHOTO PROMPT © Ted Strutz

Pillars of the Community – revised

Diane was hostess for their fiftieth annual meal. She cooked the duck perfectly, and served a rich chocolate dessert.

She and Susan and Abigail sat late, yarning about their days as Girl Guides, and, later, as women in the Trefoil Guild. Occasionally one frowned and all fell silent.

Eventually Diane stretched.

“Shall we take our group photograph outside tonight? It’s a harvest moon.”

They posed under the moon for the photograph. Each would carry a copy until the next year, a reminder of their horror in 1967.

For the fiftieth time, they swore to keep silent about their crime.

Pillars of the Community – original

It was Diane’s turn to host their annual meal. The duck she served was perfectly cooked; the dessert was rich with chocolate.

She and Susan and Abigail sat late, yarning about their days in the Guides, first as girls and then as women in the Trefoil Guild.

Eventually Diane stretched.

“Shall we take our group photograph outside tonight? It’s a harvest moon.”

They posed under the tree for the photograph. Each would carry a copy until the next annual meal, a reminder of the events of 1967.

For the fiftieth time, they swore to keep silent about their crime.

Friday Fictioneers – A room upstairs

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story, based on a photoprompt, with a beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (the blue frog) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

FF - A room upstairs 180227

PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carroll

A room upstairs

Hank ran his boxing gym with tight discipline. His coach had been a successful professional. His volunteers were all trained in safeguarding; he wanted no scandal. The club was a happy place, “an asset to our town, and a great place for our kids to learn values,” as the mayor put it.

Few people knew, and nobody cared, that Hank kept a room upstairs where he occasionally entertained a young woman. She was never one of the townsfolk. After a while, nobody even noticed the comings and goings.

Nobody cared.

Until the police came.

It was too late by then.

Trapped! (long version)

Recently, my Friday Fictioneers post “Trapped!” left the main character covered in blood and stuck on a mudbank in the middle of the river. Several readers asked what happened next – so I have extended “Trapped!” into a 2000 word short story. And, right at the very end, you will discover what happened to the man who was trapped!

Trapped - long version 171106

Trapped! – long version

All the teachers knew they had to keep Donald and Lee apart in class. Donald would whisper taunts at Lee, until Lee lost his temper and lashed out. Lee would steal Donald’s things and hide them, and then deny, face open and innocent, that he knew anything about them. Oh yes, those two boys were trouble alright.

As they passed through their teenage years, matters became worse. The two fights they had were only the most obvious symptom of their animosity. Lee broke Donald’s ankle with a sliding tackle on the football pitch. Donald knocked Lee out with a bouncer on the cricket pitch, concussing him and putting him in hospital.

Even so, as they matured they learned to conceal their dislike. The teacher who ran the Cadet Force claimed the credit. ‘Army discipline,’ he bragged, ‘make ‘em understand there’s something bigger and more important than both of ‘em.’ And perhaps he was right, for when Donald was made sergeant, Lee was an exemplary corporal under him.

When they both fell in love with the same girl, everybody expected the worst. Sue’s long, wavy hair was fair, with coppery tints, her eyes were large and cornflower blue. Her smile, warm, open and friendly, nevertheless hinted at secret delights. The two lads courted her assiduously.

Donald, whose parents were well-to-do, dressed smartly and took Sue to expensive restaurants. Heads turned as they entered; waiters were attentive; they were a power couple.

Lee, unable to use wealth as a lure, shared his knowledge of the countryside with Sue. They crouched by the river at dawn to see otters play, and Sue was dazzled by the brilliant blue flash of a kingfisher. One magical evening, they watched silently as a vixen raided a duck’s nest, swimming back and forth from island to shore carrying the eggs carefully in her mouth, bringing them one by one to her cubs.

By the time Donald went to university that autumn to study engineering, he had lost. Lee and Sue were engaged.

On the day of the wedding, Lee’s dad took him on one side.

“You’ll need a better wage than I can pay you now, lad. Had you thought you might need to change your job?”

Lee shook his head. “I’m sure we’ll manage. It wouldn’t seem right to leave you to cope with the business on your own.”

“It’s about time I retired, son. Do you fancy taking on the business yourself? I’ve money put by, and your mum and I would enjoy having some more time to ourselves. Anyway, you think about it.”

It wasn’t a difficult decision. Lee took over the business.

It was tough, trying to make enough profit from a small car repair business. At Sue’s suggestion they specialised in four wheel drive vehicles. As their reputation grew, customers came from miles around, but it still wasn’t enough.

He heard through the grapevine that Donald had started his own civil engineering business.

“Making a packet, he is,” said the man in the pub.

Next day, one of his customers, Mr Coombes, asked “I wonder if you could handle the sale of my car?”

“We don’t sell cars, just maintain them,” replied Lee.

“But you have contacts. I bet you know everybody within forty miles with a four-by-four. I’d make it worth your while.”

The documentation seemed in order, and Coombes was prepared to pay ten percent of the selling price. Lee shrugged. “Why not?” he thought. And it was easy. He sold the vehicle within hours. Money for old rope.

A few weeks later, Coombes told him that he’d recommended Lee to a friend with a car to sell.

“Same terms?” confirmed Lee, and they shook hands on the deal.

The Old Manor House came up for sale. Way out of Lee’s price range, of course, but he heard a rumour that Donald was making enquiries.

It was when Coombes brought him a third vehicle ‘from a friend’ that Lee felt misgivings.

“Look, are these things – well, ‘dodgy’ in any way?”

Coombes winked.

“Ask no questions and you’ll be told no lies. You’ve got the documents, and what they say matches the VPN and the licence plate.” Then the man stroked his chin, and said, “Obviously I have a source for these cars, and of course I’m making money out of the deal. Just to set your mind at rest, they’re repossessed vehicles. They fetch much more sold like this than at auction”

Lee looked him in the eye.

“I want fifteen percent. It’s not worth the risk for less.”

They made the deal. There were plenty of cars. Lee had a showroom added to his premises and took on a full-time salesman. After two years of this, Lee felt financially secure enough to take a holiday.

And then Donald showed up. He was looking over a nearly-new Range Rover.

“Good afternoon,” said Lee, baring his teeth in something that was almost a smile.

“You seem to be doing well. Congratulations.” Donald smirked like the small boy who had goaded Lee twenty years before.

“Thank you. From what I hear of your business, you hardly need to buy second-hand vehicles.”

“I need something for my personal assistant. This looks like a good deal. Is it kosher?”

“All my vehicles are meticulously inspected and maintained before I offer them. I’ve built my reputation on it.”

“Ah, but are they yours to sell? That’s the big question isn’t it?”

Lee nodded in the direction of his office.

“I’ll show you the documentation.”

“Documents can say anything, old lad. Tell me does the name ‘Coombes’ mean anything to you?”

Lee froze, then nodded once again towards his office.

This time, Donald walked with him over to the office. Lee closed the door.

“You see, I know Geoff Coombes rather well.” Donald looked down at his solid gold cufflinks, fiddled with them, admired them. “He’s told me some very interesting facts about the provenance of your cars. Facts that would interest the police rather a lot, I fancy.”

“I have acted in good faith in all my business dealings.”

“Oh, I very much doubt that. Acting in good faith would surely require you to show a little more interest in where your stock originates, wouldn’t you say? Besides, good faith or not, those cars are stolen and can be reclaimed by their original owners. How are you going to recompense the poor people who bought and paid you for them?”

“What do you want?” Lee ground out the words through gritted teeth.

“Well, for starters, five hundred pounds a month, in cash. And don’t be stupid enough to take it out of the bank; use cash that people have paid you – we don’t want regular transactions alerting the police.”

“Five hundred a month is nothing to you. Why are you even bothering?”

“It’s less than nothing to me – but not to you.” Donald’s smirk grew broader. “It will give me pleasure to think of you working hard in order to pay me something I don’t need. And I want something else as well. Something that you have, that should have been mine, should always have been mine. I want Sue.”

“She won’t go to you.”

“Oh, but she will, Lee, she will. She’s smart. When I tell her about the shaky foundation of your business, she’ll know exactly what her refusal would mean. Prison, probably, for you. Penury for her.”

He glanced around the office. “Nice furniture. What about a scotch from that handsome drinks cabinet? No ice, please.”

As Lee poured the drink, Donald continued, “It’s not as though I want Sue full-time. The Honorable Fiona Tremayne – whom I marry in the New Year – would object, I fancy.” He chuckled, slack-jawed. “No, all I require is that she makes herself available sexually when I require her.”

He drained his glass.

“You’ll pay me the first instalment next Monday, and you’ll bring me a letter from Sue confirming that she wants to make love with me.”

Lee’s face went white. He balanced on the balls of his feet, and his hands rose a little. The vileness of Donald’s proposal to degrade his wife, the woman he loved, choked him. He would die before he allowed that.

Abruptly, Donald said, “Enough of this. You know this area better than I do. Where and when can we meet discreetly?”

Lee thought for a few minutes.

“You know out on the Fernicross road, that old building on Convicts’ Creek?”

Donald nodded.

“Well, nobody goes there; we’d be completely safe. Make it 4:30 in the morning, and we’ll meet nothing on the roads.”

Donald drained his glass, and held it up to the light.

“Nice,” he observed, squinting at the crystal tumbler. “OK. Don’t be late.”

It was misty at 3 a.m. that Monday, as Lee drove down the lane on the bank opposite Convicts’ Creek. He parked out of sight of both road and river. The backpack he took from the trunk was nearly empty, and he slung it onto his shoulders. He left he suitcase containing a change of clothes where it was.

He had a small dinghy with an outboard moored nearby. He didn’t use the motor, though – too noisy; he rowed, with the rhythmic stroke of a man who was used to it, albeit a little tight with tension, a little hurried. The mist was patchy in the pre-dawn greyness. The tide was just starting to ebb, but he’d have no problems returning; there was a channel meandering from the creek that would take a dinghy like his at any state of the tide provided the helmsman was careful.

He ran the dinghy up beside the building, and glanced at his watch. 4 a.m. He’d best go cautiously, although Donald wasn’t the kind of man to enjoy the early morning. Lee grinned, mirthlessly.

No. There was nobody there. He settled himself close to the entrance, checked the plane tickets and passport in his backpack, and took out the knife. It was a wicked implement with a nine inch blade, one edge razor sharp, the other edge serrated. His breath came fast, in little spurts. He listened intently.

4:30 came – and went.

A blackbird started to sing.

Lee wanted to go and look at the road, look at the water, see if Donald was in sight. “Stay put,” he told himself. “Surprise is essential.” He tried breathing deeply and rhythmically. It helped a little.

A robin, and then a chaffinch joined the dawn chorus.

Five o’clock came. The light had grown pinkish; it was almost sunrise. “Damn Donald!” thought Lee. The tide ebbed fast.

Footsteps! Crunching on pebbles! Why hadn’t he heard the car approach?

The door swung open, and Donald’s smirking face confronted him.

Lee hesitated for a moment; only a moment, but he saw Donald’s eyes widen with shock as he spotted the knife. Rage reared inside him, like an out-of-control stallion. Snarling, he hurled himself forward, burying the blade in Donald’s abdomen, then pulling upwards with all his might, sawing with the serrated blade.

Blood gushed from the wound. Panic bloomed on Donald’s face, and then faded. He tried to speak, but only blood came from his mouth. Lee saw Donald’s eyes go dim, then roll up into his head. He pulled out the blade, looked with consternation at the damage it had done – and then ran.

It was pointless, Lee knew, but he paused to wash his hands and the knife before climbing into the dinghy.

He tugged at the cord to start the motor. Nothing. He swore, and tried again. A splutter, but that was it. He looked to the heavens, rosy with dawn, in supplication. He tried once more, and the motor started, misfiring at first, and then speeding as he wrenched the throttle wide open.

Lee’s heart stammered and raced like the outboard motor of the dinghy. The clean, dawn air was polluted by the stench of petrol and blood.

All he needed to do now was get back to the car, wash, change clothes, and drive to the airport.

There was a thud, and the boat stopped.

Hell! He was trapped by the falling tide!

*       *       *       *

Sue reported Lee missing that evening. The longer he was absent, the more distraught she became.

Donald’s colleagues reported him missing a couple of days later. Police found someone who’d seen his car near Convicts’ Creek, and it didn’t take them long to find the body.

They found the bloodstained dinghy, too, and traced it to Lee. They discovered his car on the far bank, with the suitcase.

The police dragged the river, but without much hope; the estuary’s mudbanks were notorious for being quicksand. They found nothing.

At Donald’s inquest, the coroner recorded a verdict of ‘Murder – by person or persons unknown’.

And that was that.

Sue sold the business, and the house, and lodged with Lee’s parents.

Twelve months later, she transferred all her money to a bank in Panama, and flew there discreetly.

Waiting for her at Tocumen Airport was a familiar figure.

“My dear, sweet love, how I’ve missed you!” sighed Lee, as he kissed her. “Welcome to our new life!”

 

Friday Fictioneers – Trapped!

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story, based on a photoprompt, with a beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (the blue frog) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

FF - Sunset - 171025

PHOTO PROMPT © Roger Bultot

Trapped!

Lee’s heart stammered and raced like the outboard motor of the dinghy carrying him to safety. The clean, dawn air was polluted by the stench of petrol and blood.

He’d almost given up. Donald had been late. Then the first greyness had lightened the eastern sky, and the man’s smirking face confronted him. The light had made it harder; it made it personal; but Lee had driven home the knife, twisting it savagely. Donald had struggled, retching out his life through clenched teeth.

There was a thud, and the boat stopped.

Hell! He was trapped by the falling tide!

Friday Fictioneers – Revenge

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story, based on a photoprompt, with a beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (the blue frog) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

FF - Revenge 171004

PHOTO PROMPT © Ted Strutz

Genre: Crime

Word count: 99

Revenge

The last ferry of the day, with its single, drunk, passenger, shuddered away from the Stag Hotel jetty.

The steward, Jamie, hoovered the saloon.

Laurence Glanville, the owner of the Stag Hotel, wasn’t going to be enjoying Catriona any more, gloated Jamie, as he took a small, heavy package from his locker. He hastily concealed it as the mate approached.

He glared at the drunk.

“Dinna puke on ma floor, laddie!”

The mate nodded and went to the wheelhouse.

Swiftly Jamie dropped the package into thirty fathoms of water.

On the mainland, flashing blue lights hurtled towards the port.

Payment in full

Gambling - 170806

Payment in full

Joe Caradonna was done, cleaned out. He scooped his jacket off the back of the chair and slouched away from the table towards the bar. Tomorrow he would have to face the reality of his $250,000 debt; for now, he would drink.

“Cash only, Mr Caradonna,” the barman told him.

He slumped into a chair near the bar. He’d have to sell his house and move back to a rented apartment. The kids weren’t going to like that. All things considered, it would be easier just to put a bullet through his brain, and let his wife collect on the insurance.

A smartly dressed man beckoned the barman, slipped a $100 bill to him.

“Bourbon, isn’t it, Mr Caradonna?”

Joe grunted. The barman poured two doubles, handed one to the stranger, the other to Joe.

“I’m Harry, by the way. Can we talk?”

They moved to a secluded booth. Nobody else was near.

“Quite a mountain to climb, $250,000. I guess you could use a little help.”

Joe looked up sharply. Harry laughed gently.

“Don’t worry, Joe. I’m not here to break your legs.”

Joe winced.

“No, I have a proposition for you. You work for Winston Davies, the architects, don’t you?”

Joe stared at Harry silently.

“I need to get into their building, in, shall we say, a clandestine fashion.”

He raised a hand to silence Joe’s immediate objection. “Hear me out, won’t you?

Winston Davies have swindled me; stolen my intellectual property. Help me, and you’ll be helping to right an injustice.

All I need from you is to know where certain building plans are filed, and the detailed security arrangements that protect the office. When I have recovered my property, I will give you a quarter million, cash, untraceable.”

Joe dropped his eyes before Harry’s compelling gaze.

By the time Joe and Harry left the building, Harry had exactly what he needed and Joe had a manilla envelope containing $10,000; a gesture of good faith, Harry called it. Joe called it a lifeline. What a fool he’d been with the gambling! He stood more upright and walked more confidently than he had done for months.

The following night, a nondescript figure walked up to the office of Winston Davies. He unlocked the door with a key and punched in Joe Caradonna’s six digit pass code. The door opened smoothly and he went in, locking it carefully behind him. Once at the back of the atrium, in the shadows, he slipped on a face mask, and then took the elevator to the fifth floor.

The files were where Joe had said they would be. The intruder carefully photographed them, checked to make sure he’d found them all, tidied up, and locked the cabinet again. He went back to the ground floor, took off the face mask, and left. Nobody would know that the office had been burgled. Harry would be pleased with that.

Harry was indeed pleased. He gave the burglar $10,000 and a bonus of $5,000. At $15,000 dollars, the detailed plans of the Monod Institute were a snip. His patient research was paying off. He now had a map that would show him a way into one of the most secret and secure places in the world, the biological weapons facility in Yeruham, Israel.

A night later, Joe waited until his wife was asleep before slipping out of the house. The address he had been given was in a dirty, ill-lit street. He realized suddenly that it was behind a club where he had played some high stakes poker. That had been in the days when he won more than he lost. He felt a flicker of excitement. Maybe at last his luck had changed, and those days of triumph would come again!

He was early. He glanced up and down the street. No-one. He checked the entrance against the description he’d been given. It matched. The door was unlocked and he walked in. The room behind was empty. Joe looked for a light, but there was no bulb in the fitting.

The door to the street opened again. Confident, smiling, Harry came in. He reached into his breast pocket.

“Here’s your payment, Joe.”

His hand swept out, concealing the gun until the last second. He jammed the muzzle under Joe’s throat. Joe had just enough time to feel the cold metal and half raise his arms as Harry squeezed the trigger, and then he slumped to he ground.

Harry pressed the gun into each of Joe’s hands in turn, and then placed it into his right hand as though he’d killed himself. The only other prints on the gun were those of the salesman who’d sold Harry the gun that afternoon. Harry put the receipt into Joe’s wallet. That should be enough to convince the police, hard-pressed as they were for resources. Open and shut case.

Harry said a quick prayer for the dead man; and left.