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Originally published Sunday, December 19, 2004 at 12:00 AM

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"Case Histories": Don't let this riveting novel's title fool you

The term "case history" usually connotes a clinical file — an account of an illness or crime written in dryly medical, or dispassionately bureaucratic...

Special to The Seattle Times

The term "case history" usually connotes a clinical file — an account of an illness or crime written in dryly medical, or dispassionately bureaucratic prose.

When applied to Kate Atkinson's absorbing novel "Case Histories," however, we get something quite different: the interlinking sagas of several disparate, unresolved crimes, all eventually landing at the doorstep of Jackson Brodie, a British private detective and former cop whose involvement in his work runs deeper than gumshoe professionalism.

With the skill of an expert mystery weaver, Atkinson (best known for her award-winning 1995 novel, "Behind the Scenes at the Museum") sets up three cases which are far more complex than they first appear. One involves the disappearance of a beloved small child in her family's backyard. Another is the out-of-the-blue homicide of a young adult woman. The third: the ax murder of a man in his home, in front of his infant daughter.

These disturbing, long-ago crimes are still baffling, as Jackson soon discovers after embarking on his investigations. But Atkinson isn't just intent on providing a twisting ride through tantalizing motives, suspects and opportunities, all of which are deftly manipulated in scenes that shuttle smoothly between past and present.

"Case Histories"

by Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown, 310 pp., $23.95

What gives "Case Histories" real gravitas is its layered comprehension of the dynamics of loss — among the siblings, parents and others whose own lives have been distorted by the shock, guilt and impotence of losing near and dear.

Though not a light read by any means, "Case Histories" is also blessedly funny in the midst of heartbreak. And the characters stay with you, and keep surprising.

Jackson, for instance, is one of those detective-wrecks we mystery lovers adore: miserably divorced, a devoted but somewhat inept single dad, a walking magnet for trouble, but also a keenly compassionate and a fearless advocate for his clients (for reasons going back to his own family tragedies).

Among the other compelling figures here are the flamboyant Julia and imploding Amelia, who have reacted to the suspicious disappearance of their angelic little sister Olivia in sharply contrasting ways over the decades. And then there's Theo, a lovable, melancholy retiree still obsessed with the memory of his favored daughter Laura, long after her murder.

All of Jackson's clients are altered by his sometimes stumbling, ultimately revelatory sleuthing. What changes them as much, however, are their new, promising connections to others. Salvation, Atkinson implies, is when one haunted by violence can form intimate bonds again — be it with a pack of middle-aged nudists or a scruffy young homeless woman.

In the end, new love and old grief, the burdens of the past and possibilities of the future, overlap. And "Case Histories," a finalist for Britain's prestigious Whitbread Prize this year, reinvigorates the mystery/crime genre with an infusion of tragicomic humanity.

Misha Berson is The Seattle Times drama critic.

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