Novel Readings

To Teach or Not to Teach: The Case of Case Histories

As promised, I have reread Kate Atkinson’s first Jackson Brodie novel, Case Histories, and I’m reporting back. My motive in rereading it was partly just to refresh my experience of it, as I remembered having thought it was very good. It is! But I was also rereading it to see if I thought it would work as an assigned text in my class on mystery and detective fiction, and I don’t think it will. Or, at any rate, I don’t think I’ll try it.

There are various reasons for this, none of which reflect badly on Case Histories and some of which may reflect badly on me, or on the way I teach my class. The main reason is that while Case Histories is a very good novel about crime, it’s fairly odd as a ‘crime novel.’ I might even go so far as to say that it isn’t really a crime novel, in the (admittedly narrow) sense that a crime novel is a novel primarily dedicated to presenting and then solving a crime (or crimes). Definitions like this are at once pointless and essential, especially when selecting a reading list. It’s pointless for reasons that Case Histories illustrates perfectly — about which, more in a moment. But it’s necessary because (as I discuss with my class in the first session or two) we always need a reason to focus on one thing rather than another, and though the boundaries around crime fiction as a genre are uncertain, porous, misleading, you name it, nonetheless we do recognize it as a genre, as definable in some sense, to some degree, which is why we can have sections for it in the book store or talk about it as our favorite kind of reading or award prizes for writing it especially well. One of the ways we can differentiate between crime fiction and other kinds of novels that include crimes in them (Adam Bede, say, or — to pick a nearby example — A God in Ruins) is by the extent to which a specific crime and its solution are a novel’s raison d’être — its primary interest, its organizational principle. That’s a simple rubric that distinguishes the vast majority of the books we confidently refer to as crime novels, detective novels, or mysteries.

“But wait,” I hear you protesting. “Doesn’t Case Histories fit that model?” You’re right, it does — kind of. Yes, it is organized around specific crimes, and around solving them, if by “solving” you mean “finding out what actually happened.” Like a more conventional crime novel, it has a central character who acts as chief investigator for the crimes, and whose personality and processes shape our sense, or the novel’s sense, of values by testing and perhaps redefining ideas about law, justice, crime, and punishment. (In Case Histories, for instance, Brodie decides not to turn over his discovery about one of the novel’s crimes to the authorities, keeping it instead inside the family most affected by it.) Brodie himself fits easily into a well-established pattern: he’s a former soldier and police officer, divorced, depressed, with a young daughter whose vulnerability chafes at him — it’s like hanging out with Rebus’s first cousin! (In fact, on this reading, I was struck by the many echoes of Knots and Crosses, particularly the emphasis on missing girls. “Lock up your daughters,” say the headlines as the Edinburgh Strangler terrifies the town. “If only you could lock girls away,” we hear in Case Histories, “in towers, in dungeons, in their bedrooms, anywhere that would keep them safe.”) There are clues (sort of) and the novel as a whole is shaped by revelations about where they lead.

So why would I hesitate to call Case Histories a crime novel? Because it seems to me more a novel about loss, for which crime becomes the vehicle, and about character, especially as revealed by crimes and their aftermaths. There’s relatively little attention given to the investigations, most of which are taking place so long after the crimes themselves that the solutions matter very little except as opportunities for closure — it’s too late for justice, too late for retribution. The weight of Case Histories is on its people, not its cases, and while that may sound like a meaningless distinction (what are “cases,” after all, if not things done by or happening to people?), I think the reading experience nonetheless bears it out.

As I said, this is not a knock against Case Histories. It’s a very good novel. I’m just not sure how I would approach it as an example in my class. The best way, the right way, would probably be to use it to push against too restrictive an idea of the genre: to discuss what difference it makes when the puzzle element is subordinated this thoroughly to other concerns, to examine Case Histories as a possible test case of the putative distinction between “literary” and “genre” fiction, one marker of which is sometimes taken to be exactly this kind of difference in priorities. Like Ian Rankin, I don’t like the implicit hierarchy of terms like “transcending the genre,” but Case Histories challenges us to keep thinking about how we define it. That would be a good conversation to have — and in fact other books on my reading list provoke it already (including P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which I teach as both a crime novel and a variation on the Bildungsroman, or Knots and Crosses, which Rankin claims not to have written as a crime novel).

Case Histories would give us at least as much else to talk about as any of our other readings: the links (thematic and emplotted) between the different cases, provocations about what justice means or is worth, explorations of identity, particularly for women, of sexuality, and of family. There’s a lot going on in the novel, including a lot that is relevant to the fundamental issues of my class. And yet… Talking about Case Histories in these ways would be intrinsically interesting, but I’m not convinced it would further my objective in the course of exposing students to as many varieties of detective fiction as I can: the class is a lower-level survey course, and we have a lot of subgenres to cover. Which one would Case Histories represent? Also, a related question: which book would it displace? Knots and Crosses, probably, especially since lately I have another police procedural on the list (The Terrorists). But Knots and Crosses is a crowdpleaser in ways I doubt Case Histories would be. When I assign An Unsuitable Job for a Woman in this class, it’s usually the least popular book on the list: if students find it too slow, how would they fare with Case Histories’ slow burn? The book never really picks up much momentum, either, despite the occasional burst of drama. The crimes are brutal and disturbing, but the time-shifting of the narrative means that we keep starting and stopping with them, circling around, not so much accumulating information as accreting emotional residue. It works as a novel — but is it teachable as a crime novel?

Of course, the only way to find out for sure would be to assign it, set it up as well as I could, and see how it went.