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.

The Stranger

This story is not set in any well-defined location. It probably most closely resembles the USA in the 1950s, but I’ve made no attempt to make it realistic. It’s a story about community. While a community is often very supportive to its members, it’s not necessarily welcoming to outsiders, and it can place obstacles in the way of those who dream of a wider horizon…

The stranger - church - winter 170325

The young man staggered down the hill and into the village.

It was Sunday morning. The night had been cold, and people were dressed in their warmest overcoats as they walked to church.

The young man was in shirtsleeves, and tattered ones at that. His hair was unkempt, and his eyes were wild.

“He must be frozen,” murmured Hannah, the pastor’s eldest daughter.

“He’s been drinking,” responded her aunt, tartly.

Although it was snowy underfoot, the stranger was wearing light shoes rather than boots; they looked as inadequate as the rest of his outfit.

He seemed glad of the support of the church porch, and clung there for a moment. A small queue started to form. The woman greeting people at the door caught the eye of the pastor, Charles Montez, who hurried over.

“Come in, sir, come in. Welcome!”

Charles Montez looked around the small building. He expected a full house this morning; he was baptising Jenny Holmes’s child. There was a stove halfway down one side, with a space beside it to allow coal to be shovelled in. He fetched a chair, and put it in the space. The stranger stared at him.

“Sit there, sir, sit there. And welcome once again.”

The stranger spoke.

“Da!”

He sat down. Gradually his shaking subsided. His eyes closed. Charles noticed. He fetched some old, heavy curtains from the back of the vestry, and covered the stranger, tucking the fabric close around him.

The church filled. The mayor, Jenny’s uncle, arrived in his civic robes and chain, and paraded to the front. His wife, Gloria, caught sight of the tramp, huddled under the blankets asleep. She frowned, and compressed her lips. She squeezed her husband’s elbow and pointed at the pile of curtains.

“David,” she hissed, “you just have a word with the pastor after the service. This is supposed to be a special day for us!”

Charles was patient. “What would you have me do, Dave? Throw the man out into the snow?”

“You know how it is, Charley.” Dave tilted his head in the direction of Gloria, who was holding court at the back of the church. Charles nodded. He knew.

“He turned up here just before the service. Come a long way by the look of him. Doesn’t seem to speak English either. I’m not quite sure what we can do with him. I’ll leave him to sleep for now, but he’ll need somewhere to stay tonight.”

The two men looked at the congregation drinking coffee at the back of the church.

“I’ll phone the police when I’m home. See if anybody’s missed him. I’ll let you know, shall I?”

“If you would, Dave. I wouldn’t want to park a convict on any of my flock. On the other hand, I can’t turn him away.”

Charles collected a coffee. Half a dozen people wanted to compliment him on the sermon. Three people wanted to discuss church business. As always, he deflected them gently. He didn’t believe in settling matters by the whisperings of two or three people; he insisted that if a decision was needed, the whole church should have a chance to speak. He drifted in the direction of Joe and Val.

Val was apologetic but firm. “Normally, as you know, Pastor, we would love to take in the stranger, but we’ve a houseful of guests, three people in every bedroom and two in the study. The family has come over for the New Year…”

In the end, Charles took him to the manse. Julieta rolled her eyes at him. Their house was almost as full as Joe and Val’s. What was she: a miracle worker?

“You’re my miracle worker anyway,” he said, kissing her.

“Oh, you! Go and peel the potatoes. I’ll see if any of your old clothes will fit him.”

First, though, he would need a bath; and a shave and haircut, too. She called her eldest son, Matthew.

“Just take our new friend – I’m sorry, I don’t know your name?” She looked at their guest. He looked back mutely, frowning. “Anyway, run him a bath, and lend him a razor. See if he’d like your sister to give him a haircut.”

Matthew grinned. He gestured at himself. “Matt!” he said to the guest, “Matt!” Then he pointed to his mom. “Julieta!”

The man’s face cleared. He pointed to himself. “Eevan!”

Matt pointed at him. “Eevan?” he said.

“Da! Eevan!”

Matt put his arm around Eevan. “Come on! We’ll soon have you sorted out!”

Half an hour later Eevan looked a great deal more comfortable, clean and in clothes the pastor had last worn some twenty years ago. Julieta blessed her habit of never throwing away anything that was still useable. Matt touched Eevan’s wet hair and pantomimed snipping with scissors.

“Da. Spasseebo.”

“Wait here. I’ll fetch Hannah.”

Hannah shuffled a university prospectus out of sight as Matt came into the room she shared with her sisters. She would love to study, but what would her family think? She coloured a little as Matt asked her to cut Eevan’s hair.

“Will you stay with me while I do it? He frightens me a little.”

“Course I will, Sis. But he’s a lot nicer now. Doesn’t smell so bad, either!” He wrinkled his nose.

Hannah laughed.

“You shouldn’t be so rude about a guest!”

Eevan sitting in a chair, clean and in old but serviceable clothes, was indeed a much less formidable proposal. As she spread a towel round his shoulders, Hannah noticed how the bones protruded. She was surprised by his hair. It had been cut in ragged tufts, and some parts seemed to have been pulled out altogether. But she just clipped away, keeping up a soothing flow of conversation, and every now and again catching Eevan’s eye and smiling shyly.

By the time Hannah had finished – it didn’t take her long – Eevan was quite presentable. Julieta put all his old clothes into the washing machine, and what remained of his shoes into the scullery. She clicked her teeth and wondered how they were to help their new friend. Never mind; sufficient unto the day.

Later that evening, Matt took his dad on one side.

“There’s an odd thing about Eevan,” he said. “On his left forearm, about halfway up on the inside, there’s a number tattooed. 576A, it is.” He raised his eyebrows.

“Interesting. Well, we can’t do other than take him at face value tonight, but I’ll tell Dave in the morning. He was going to check with the police, to see if anybody had gone missing hereabouts.”

But Dave’s enquiries yielded no answers.

Eevan picked up a few words of English. He helped about the house, and then in some of the heavier outdoor tasks. Charles began to wonder how he might be employed; it wasn’t good for a man to have no regular work. He wondered, too, whether Hannah might not be feeling intrigued by Eevan; he’d seen her glancing at him and blushing when she realised he’d noticed.

That would be awkward; Hannah and Stephen, Dave’s son, had been walking out for a couple of years. Anybody could see how attractive they found each other. The whole town assumed that they were going to marry.

“That’s a strange guest you’ve had since Christmas.” Stephen was scornful. “I reckon your dad should kick him out. Doesn’t speak English, doesn’t work. A freeloader.”

“He’s not been here that long, only a few months. He helps a lot about the house.” Hannah was gentle in her contradiction.

“Helps about the house? Well I should just think he does. Does he wear a pinny and do the baking?”

Hannah went pink.

“Eevan is a good man, Stephen. He’s gentle and thoughtful, and a friend.”

“Well, he’d better not get ideas, that’s all, or this town will be too hot for him.”

A couple of days later, Eevan asked Matthew if he could help himself to some wire from the shed.

“Sure. What are you going to do? Do you want a hand?”

Eevan shook his head. “You will like,” he promised.

He returned late that evening, carrying three young rabbits, and sporting a large bruise on his left cheek. He presented the rabbits to Julieta with a bow and a smile.

“Why, thank you! I wondered what we were going to eat tomorrow, and now I know. Coney stew! Eevan – Spasseebo!”

Eevan bowed again, and beamed with delight

Stephen took Hannah to the cinema that evening, picking her up in his car. Hannah wondered how it was that he could afford a new car, when her dad could only manage a ten-year-old Ford.

As soon as the feature started, Stephen started to kiss her. She normally enjoyed that – who doesn’t? – but tonight she wasn’t in the mood. She put her finger on her lips.

“I want to watch the movie,” she said, even though she didn’t.

When his hand started to reach under her skirt, she elbowed him hard in the ribs.

“Get off,” she hissed.

Stephen scowled.

When they were back in the car, Hannah let him kiss her. She couldn’t think of a way of stopping him without causing a quarrel. But when he tried again to pet her, she hitched herself away from him.

“I’m sorry, Stephen, I’m not in the mood. If you must know, I’m on my period.” Even though she wasn’t.

Stephen gripped the steering wheel and groaned. “Bloody women!”

Then a smirk slithered across his face.

“That precious lodger of yours won’t forget today, though.”

Hannah stared at him.

“Knocked him right out.” The smirk was accompanied by a wriggling in the seat.

“You knocked him out?”

“Sure. Well, me and Ken together. I don’t reckon he’ll want to hang around too much longer, now he knows the townsfolk don’t want him.”

“You beast! That was a horrible thing to do. I hate you!” Hannah jerked the car door open.

“Hey, where’re you going?”

“Away from you. I’m finished with you. I hate you!”

“Whoah! Do you have feelings for that lowlife? What does that make you then? I don’t know why I’ve been wasting my time on you!”

He hit her. She fell to the ground, weeping, and he drove away.

She was just in time to catch the cinema manager as he locked up. “No Stephen?” he asked. “Are you okay?”

“No. We’ve just split up. He hit me.”

“I’ll ring your dad.”  They went back into the cinema, and he rang from the ticket office and stayed with her. It was only ten minutes before there was a screech of tyres from outside, and Charles came panting in. He wrapped both big arms around his daughter and held her tight.

Her sobs stilled as they drove home, and she said “Can I talk to you about something serious, Dad?”

“Of course, love. Will it wait until we’re home?”

“Mom’ll be all over us. You know how she fusses. Anyway, it’s quite quick to say, although it’s quite slow to think about. I’d like to go to university, Dad. I couldn’t think how to ask when it seemed I was going to marry Stephen, but even then it was what I really wanted to do.”

Charles pulled up at the side of the road.

“You’ll have to live a long way from home,” he said. “Your mom and I will miss you. I don’t know whether we can afford the money, either. But we’ll see what can be done. I’ll back you if mom feels too concerned. Is that good enough?”

“Thank you, Dad.” The smile on Hannah’s face told Charles all he needed to know.

A fortnight later, Eevan disappeared.

Charles spoke to David. He spoke to the police. They took the details and made some cursory enquiries. But nobody in the town ever saw Eevan again.

 

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