STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG isn’t a nicely linear tale with a recognisable beginning, middle and end. Nor is it, as a whole, quite believable given its abundance of coincidences (or absence of nails). But neither of these things prevent it from being an absolute delight to read and yet more evidence, should it be needed, that rules are often at their best when broken.
To attempt to summarise the novel’s plot would be an exercise in futility but I’ll pick out a few of its elements to whet your appetite. Jackson Brodie is a former soldier, former cop and retired private detective but not everyone, least of all Brodie himself, really grasps that he’s no longer in the detecting business. So he finds himself looking for the person Hope McMaster was before being adopted at age two and taken to New Zealand. Tracy Waterhouse is working in private security after 30 years as a Yorkshire cop when one day she spots a woman dragging a young child cruelly through a shopping centre and takes a rash, out-of-character action that forever changes her life. When she was just starting out as a cop in the 1970’s Tracy responded to a call-out where the body of a young woman who’d been dead for several weeks was found in a flat; along with her still alive young child. This event continues to influence Tracy and some of her colleagues many years later.
Atkinson is a brilliant observer, able to show the full gamut of human experience and emotion. When she is bitingly funny, which is often, she ensures we are laughing at our collective selves such as when Brodie contemplates the technological marvels of the last fifty years
In the half-century of his life, a tick on the Doomsday clock, he had borne witness to the most unbelievable technological advances. He had started off listening to an old Bush radio in the corner of the living room and now he had a phone in his hand on which he could pretend to throw a scrunched-up piece of paper into a waste bin. The world had waited a long time for that.
Haven’t we just? Just as often though she can be achingly poignant such as with her depiction of Tilly, an ageing actress whose character in a long-running series is to be killed off partly because Tilly, beginning to experience the first, terrifying signs of dementia, can’t remember her lines. Her plight will make you laugh and weep, occasionally at the same moment.
The book is full of wonderful characters whether they have small roles or larger ones and it is to Atkinson’s credit that though he is central to the book Jackson Brodie doesn’t overwhelm it. There is Barry, Tracy’s former partner who attended that long ago call-out with her and who is now suffering the most heart-aching family crisis. Or Courtenay, the young child who Tracy encounters in that shopping centre, who clings to the remnants of her fairy costume long after it’s lost its lustre and who answers “it’s the colour of the sky” when asked what colour grey is. Sob.
In short STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG is the perfect package of exquisite writing, richly drawn characters, incisive humour and a plot that is impossible to explain yet surprisingly easy to follow. Best of all and despite its many sadnesses it is ultimately joyful, leaving me happier at the end than I was at the start
The novel’s adaptation comes in the form of the first movie-length episode of the second series of TV’s Case Histories. It stars Jason Isaacs (to whom I now feel compelled to say “hello”) in the role of Jackson Brodie and follows the main plot elements well enough to suit most purists.
Isaacs is a terrific Brodie, managing to convey all of the traits that make him an appealing character to spend time with (though not perhaps to marry). He is taciturn and tough though, unlike many TV heroes, he visibly shows the ravages of his various run-ins with thugs and n’er do wells. He does kind or good things more than once but there’s never any suggestion that he’s anything other than a curmudgeon in training or that his less likable traits, like his unreliability and taking the people around him for granted, ought to be glossed over.
Though in the end the character of Tracy comes together much as she does in the novel other minor characters are not nearly as well fleshed out here as there is opportunity for in the novel. The gorgeous Tilly is missing all together for example. The adaptation is much more Brodie’s story than the novel is.
One of the advantages this medium has over the source material is that it can include the actual music that its characters enjoy, not just some quoted lyrics. The soundtrack for this episode of Case Histories, like all the others, is largely made-up of country music ballads sung by women with astonishingly good voices and it adds a welcome layer to the storytelling. If, like me, you go immediately in search of a playlist you’ll learn the internet is full of helpful folk.
For me the book is a clear winner here but not because the adaptation is bad. It’s more that it doesn’t – can’t really I suppose – truly capture the things I like most about the book: the dry humour, the crackling writing, the ensemble cast and the crazily complicated plot. The adaptation is well worth a watch and does bring its own advantages but its more melancholic tone and its brevity prevent it from being as thoroughly satisfying as the book.
This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.