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Although I read the whole book—completing it while on vacation in San Francisco—I found Started Early, Took My Dog less engrossing and more muddled than Atkinson’s previous Jackson Brodie books. I marveled at her skill in balancing so many different plot strands in One Good Turn, but here I despaired at how the narratives felt so jumbled and contrived. One good gust of wind, and I’d be able to see the novel’s scaffolding.

Some key plot questions—such as who killed Kelly Cross and whether Courtney is or isn’t her daughter—were left unanswered: unusual for the detective genre, where the i’s are typically dotted and the t’s crossed. Leads me to wonder whether Atkinson will follow up with a new book in which we’ll revisit Courtney and her new mom Tracy (who bought Courtney from Kelly—which is less creepy than it sounds, here).

And although I applaud Atkinson for creating an anti-heroine in the hefty, lonely retired cop Tracy, I just couldn’t warm up to her character. Likewise, Tilly, the aging actress who’s succumbing to a strange, rapid-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Despite all her creatively-written interior monologues, Tilly is just pathetic. Atkinson takes daring chances with the detective genre, but this time the characters and the plot lines seem to have slipped out of her control; the ways in which the narratives flow into each seem contrived rather than remarkably clever. It’s my least favorite book of the series.

For all I’ve complained, Started Early is still a fine book. It’s more that Atkinson has set the bar pretty high. It would be tough to match the amazing climax in One Good Turn, or the stunning loss of Martin in Good News—plot twists that felt inevitable, not staged. There are too many unearned coincidences and correspondences in Started Early for my liking.