Tracy Waterhouse, a large woman in her fifties for whom sporadic cottage cheese and grapefruit diets have failed, is one of three main characters in Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, "Started Early, Took My Dog". She has recently retired from the Leeds, England, police force where she worked as a crime investigator. Tracy is without husband, parents and siblings. She has no friends, just acquaintances – former colleagues from the force. For something to occupy her time she has taken a menial job as director of security for a Leeds shopping mall. Thirty years of witnessing human evil first hand have left her hard and cynical, a woman without optimistic plans for her future who revels in consuming junk food and beer.
In the book’s riveting opening chapter Tracy buys a three-year-old girl from Kelly Cross, a notorious drug-addicted prostitute and thief. The astonishing purchase is a spur-of-the-moment decision. Tracy happens to have stashed in her bag five thousand pounds in cash with which she had intended to pay a man who was remodeling her kitchen. Kelly has been brutally lugging the child, whose name is Courtney, along the mall pavements while shouting belittling commands at her. We understand that Tracy, of course, wants to save the toddler from further abuse, and more significantly, that she herself is looking for someone to love.
Tracy is a skillfully drawn character, likeable despite her personal flaws, who from the beginning endears herself to readers. She is the vehicle for much of Atkinson’s dark wit, and her comments on the state of the world are insightful. For example, when a scornful, aging policeman remarks that the good-old-days were better than the present:
“Tracy thought she must be missing something, it felt like the same world as ever to her. The rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, kids everywhere falling through the cracks. The Victorians would have recognized it. People just watched a lot more TV and found celebrities interesting, that was all that was different.”
The second of the novel’s central characters is another former Yorkshire police detective named Jackson Brodie who appears in three of Atkinson’s previous novels. Now working as a private eye, he has been employed by a young British woman living in New Zealand. She is seeking information about her birth parents. Like Tracy he makes an impulsive decision when he sees a man torturing a small dog in a park. In a split-second he finds himself the dog’s owner.
Unlike her counterparts the third leading character, Tilly Squires, is losing rather than acquiring possessions. She is an elderly actress who plays a role in a popular British TV soap opera. At the mall where Tracy works, Tilly, with her wig askew, has lost her car keys and her purse. Over the course of the novel she also loses her memory.
Three credible storylines, each hinging on one of these characters, run through the novel, and Atkinson expertly interweaves them. At the mall Tilly compounds the loss of her belongings by inadvertently shoplifting a map. It is Jackson Brodie who comforts her, and both of them observe Kelly and Courtney just minutes before Tracy purchases the toddler. When Tilly first spots them, Courtney is skipping and singing, but seconds later Kelly, a disheveled woman “with crude tattoos and a mobile phone clamped to her ear,” is furiously yelling at her. Tilly thinks:
“You knew what happened to children like that when they got home.
Behind close doors. Child cruelty. Snipping off all the little buds so they could never blossom.”
Courtney, showing no emotion whatsoever over her precipitous separation from Kelly, takes her new “mother” by the hand. Before long the sickly child is bathed and shampooed and happily dressed in a pink fairy costume. In her tiny hand the monosyllabic toddler holds a magic wand that she comically brandishes at all the right moments.
As this present-day plot unfolds, Atkinson introduces threads from 1975 when Tracy investigated a grisly murder scene. Masterfully, Atkinson juggles timeframes and plot twists to give us a complicated, suspenseful and satisfying narrative.
The novel’s title "Started Early, Took My Dog", is the opening line of a poem by Emily Dickinson. Atkinson and Dickinson have a common gift for shaping words into sentences and lines that carry an uncanny immediacy. Atkinson’s book is much more than a compelling who-done-it. It is an illumination of the human condition.