A few years ago, I was lucky enough to attended a conference at which Kate Mosse, the bestselling author and founder of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (previously the Orange Prize), was one of the keynote speakers. During her talk, Mosse discussed the ‘distinction’ between literary and popular fiction. The inverted commas there represent Mosse’s, and her audience’s, acknowledgment that this distinction is possibly more perceived than actual. These perceptions are that literary fiction focuses on language and ideas, whilst popular fiction is concerned with plot and character. Myriad debates blow up right at this point. Are the two mutually exclusive? Is one perceived to be worthier and/or cleverer than the other? Is one considered to be something of a poor relation, created by those less skilled and/or after a fast buck? I don’t plan to address these questions because they are very complex and I will get myself into a right old tangle, inciting fury and rage.
No. What I really want to do here is to reveal a little bit more of my reading identity by saying that most of my favourite novels occupy the border territory between literary and popular fiction. Language and ideas are all very interesting and everything, but I am not that well-endowed in the attention span department so … hang on what was I … oh yeah. I’m not that well-endowed in the attention span department so I really need more of an impetus to keep on turning the pages. Consequently, I like a nice, gripping plot and some interesting characters. But – and I hope you don’t think me an insufferably pompous arse here – I don’t like things to be too unchallenging because I get bored. So the recipe for the perfect, Caroline-friendly novel has plot and character as the main ingredients, with a side salad of ideas and a dash of language. A tiny bit of something to make my brain spark a little, but not a load of beautiful written nothings that offer no thrills whatsoever. I am the literary Goldilocks.
I reckon that Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth falls into this category. It is primarily a blockbusting thriller, but also reflects upon the deeper themes of remembrance and the invisible links between generations. However, one of my favourite occupiers of this border territory is a novel by another Kate – Kate Atkinson.
Case Histories is the first in a series of four novels that offer a new twist on the genre of crime fiction. The central character in all four books is the appealingly gruff and refreshingly human Jackson Brodie, a former policeman turned private detective. Brodie is coming to terms with the recent breakdown of his marriage, is trying to maintain a relationship with his young daughter and continues to be haunted by a tragedy from his past. In this beautifully written and structurally complex introduction to Brodie, the detective becomes involved in three different cases:
1970: three-year old Olivia Land vanishes, without apparent trace, from her back garden never to be seen again. Years later, her sisters discover Olivia’s beloved soft toy Blue Mouse locked in their recently deceased father’s desk.
1979: a wife brutally murders her husband with an axe.
1994: Theo Wyre’s cherished daughter Laura is killed in an apparently random attack.
Three compelling mysteries. Yet, tellingly, I cannot remember ‘who dunnit’ or how the cases were solved. What I do remember is the profound sense of loss caused by Olivia Land’s disappearance. The bewildering sadness of the fact that a tiny human being can vanish without a trace, leaving nothing behind but an ownerless cloth mouse. Just thinking about Blue Mouse makes me sad; I am torturing myself here. I also remember vividly the devastation caused by Laura Wyre’s death, and the idea that a person and all they are can be erased utterly in just a second of mindless violence.
This is a novel, then, in which the crimes themselves are peripheral. They frame rather than drive the plot. Case Histories is not really about the detection or solution of crimes but their impact; it is about the way in which survivors deal with grief and loss. I fear I have made this book sound pill-poppingly depressing but, for me at least, that is far from the case. It is hauntingly beautiful and full of wit. Moreover, the combination of truly skillful, ‘literary’ writing and compelling, more populist plot devices is both interesting and satisfying.
So far, there are three other books in the series: One Good Turn; When Will There Be Good News; and Started Early, Took My Dog. All three are excellent but it is Case Histories that has stayed with me for years.
Before I go, you might be interested to know that all of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels have been adapted for television. These adaptations were broadcast by the BBC under the blanket title of Case Histories. The series starred Jason Isaacs (A.K.A. Lucius Malfoy) as Brodie and is well worth a watch.