Kate Atkinson writes prose of such simplicity and clarity that she makes the process look as if it is ridiculously easy. And even if the writing is almost certainly not easy - although it might be - the reading is. Her words flow off the page like the nectar of the Gods: delicious, golden, life-giving. Minutes and hours can pass without notice in her company.
Did I mention I like her books? I love her books. If Kate Atkinson wrote dishwasher manuals, I would read them. If Jackson Brodie, her private detective, spent 100 pages tying his shoelaces or mowing the lawn or reading a Kate Atkinson dishwasher manual, I would read it.
Tied to the deceptively simple, fluent writing are Atkinson's acute and incisive observational skills and fresh view of the world which allow her to bring new life to moribund and ordinary. These talents are deployed with particular precision and impact when describing human emotions and behaviour, which makes her characters multi-dimensional and fascinating and such compelling company on the page. Atkinson also has the gift of timing, continually delivering just the right line at the right moment. This is particularly true of Julia - Brodies' former lover - who is a peripheral character in this book but acts as a sort of commentator on Jackson's choices and actions, as he remembers what she might say at any particular juncture. (This is one of the attributes that makes her books so perfect for audio).
With all this going for it, Started Early, Took My Dog - the fourth book of the Jackson Brodie series - scarcely needs a plot, but Atkinson provides one anyway.
Brodie is back in hs native Leeds, searching out a family history for an adoptee who was moved to New Zealand by her new parents. Despite working all available official channels, he cannot find a trace of Hope McMaster's former life, and is forced to the conclusion that his client's history is less straightfoward and probably less legal than she believes.
As Jackson flails around in the darkness of public archives and amnesiac officials we are introduced to Tracy Whitehouse, a senior former detective, who is spending her retirement managing security in a shopping centre. This second career that comes to an abrupt halt when Tracy sees a well-known criminal verbally abusing a young girl and implusively offers to buy the child. The offer is accepted. (At the same time Jackson is rescuing a small dog from an owner dishing out physical abuse.)
Tracy is a classic Atkinson character: idiosyncratic, if not downright eccentric, slightly damaged by exposure to real life and in some way incomplete. The author takes care to draw her carefully, to flesh out her (not inconsiderable) bones and eventually she becomes as moving and memorable as other wonderful characters in the series such as Reggie, the teen babysitter who steals the show in When Will There Be Good News?
Characterisation is the towering achievement of Atkinson's novels and in Started Early she takes half a dozen or so apparently unconnected souls and ties them together into a mystery story. And while Jackson and Tracy might be the leads, the care and detail lavished on minor characters - Courtney, Tracy's new ward, or Tilly, an aging and fading actress working with Julia on a cop show being filmed nearby - is such that each captures their own corner of the reader's heart.
The mystery story itself is perhaps less than mesmerising - although certainly not predictable and never dull - but is merely the canvas for Atkinson's wonderful characters and a device used to observe the peculiarities, absurdities and cruelty of a modern world that Atkinson clearly doesn't quite approve of.
I don't think I have enjoyed a novel this year as much as Started Early, Took My Dog, and I know there is not a book I have wanted to finish less. It's a cruel world, indeed, in which we have to wait (at the very least) another year for more from Atkinson and Brodie. Perhaps the television adaptation can ease the pain.