November 12, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Case Histories

Current Status
In Season
Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown and Company
We gave it an A

The British writer Kate Atkinson’s odd and brilliant new novel, Case Histories, begins with three unrelated horror stories, each told in chilling, exquisite detail. On a summer’s night in 1970, a beloved toddler disappears from her home and is never seen again. Nine years later, a young housewife is found clutching an ax, her husband sprawled on the floor with his skull split open, their baby asleep in the playpen, a lasagna ”neatly cling-filmed” in the fridge. In 1994, the favorite daughter of a soft-hearted lawyer is shot to death on her first day of work at his firm; the killer is never found.

These three unresolved narratives converge when, years later, survivors of the tragedies independently turn to private investigator Jackson Brodie for answers. A divorced former cop hooked on the Dixie Chicks and Lucinda Williams, Brodie has a grisly backstory of his own: His sister was raped, strangled, and dumped in a canal when he was 12. Atkinson’s world is supersaturated with this kind of flesh-crawling sexual violence. Evil is not a tumor that can be neatly excised by nabbing a few perverts: It’s a chronic, systemic disease.

And yet this dark novel is also a delightful, fascinating, and bitingly funny read. Atkinson has brought to life a marvelously diverse cast of unforgettable characters, from cynical but secretly tender Jackson to his sassy daughter, Marlee, an 8-year-old fond of dancing provocatively to Christina Aguilera, much to Jackson’s dismay. And then there’s Amelia. The now-middle-aged sister of the abducted toddler, Amelia has withered into a prim, flabby spinster so awash in self-loathing that she believes the reason her sexually abusive father never molested her was that, unlike her sisters, she wasn’t attractive enough.

But Atkinson firmly believes in love and healing, if not of the Hallmark-card variety. Amelia, for one, finally learns what happened to her baby sister (it wasn’t pretty), and finds personal solace by hooking up with a group of saggy, aging nudists. It’s a qualified happy ending for this peculiar, tormented character, and, like Atkinson’s marvelous book, strange, funny, and absolutely right.

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