There are impulse shoppers, and then there's Tracy Waterhouse. The retired police superintendent-turned-mall-security-chief sees a drug-addicted prostitute mistreating a toddler and offers to buy the little girl on the spot in Kate Atkinson's fourth mystery, Started Early, Took My Dog, (Little, Brown, 400 pp.) named after an Emily Dickinson poem. Witnessing this transaction is aging actress Tilly Squires, who's losing her memory and about to lose her job.
Semi-retired private detective Jackson Brodie, searching for the birth parents of a New Zealand woman, acquires a little dog in a similarly ad hoc fashion, removing it from the possession of a man choking it with a rope. The impulses to rescue the innocent reverberate throughout the novel, as do missing children, a perpetual theme with Brodie, who is haunted by a lost girl of his own: his sister, Niamh, who was murdered as a teen.
Atkinson has won acclaim for her mysteries, with their sleight-of-hand and meandering, switchback-filled pages. (She's not for everyone: I love the books, but some readers find them downright infuriating.) She takes her time bringing Jackson and Tracy and their storylines together with flashbacks to a 35-year-old murder that occurred when Tracy was a rookie, with asides for poetry and the sorry state of the economy and its attendant social evils.“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.”
In addition to elegant writing and bleak whimsy, Atkinson can plot on almost a subterranean level. When the connections all come together, it makes for a terrific read.