When toddler Olivia disappeared one summer night while sleeping in a tent with her sister in her Cambridge family's garden, her treasured blue toy mouse vanished with her.

That mystery — which effectively wrecked her already dysfunctional family and finished off her mother — occurred more than 30 years ago, according to the subtitle "Case History No 11970" in the first chapter of Atkinson's ripping new yarn.

Move through a few more "Case Histories" and we come to the present day and private investigator Jackson Brodie, who has been contacted by two of Olivia's sisters. Visiting their much-disliked father on his deathbed, they are disturbed by something they've found locked in his study while clearing out the house: Olivia's blue mouse.


Both sisters, now in their 40s — Amelia unloved and prickly, Julia slutty and boisterous — want Jackson to investigate. But as well as the sisters' concerns about their father, the Cambridge PI has other cases on hand.

There's obese Theo, who has never got over the murder of his beloved daughter in his law office 10 years ago. Who was the man in the yellow golf shirt who ran in shouting his name then sliced her throat? The descriptive power of that scene alone is one of the most potent pieces of writing I've shuddered over for quite some time.

Then there's Michelle, leading the so-called good life with her annoying husband and new baby in the countryside, going quietly mad in an environment where implements such as axes are easily available. We discover later she has a connection with another, more monied, country lady, Caroline, and a street waif befriended by Theo.

Jackson has his own secrets and problems, not least of which is his new status as single man and weekend father. He keeps up a tenuous friendship with Binky, an elderly woman who wants him to trace a missing cat. But when she introduces Jackson to her "Sarth Efrican" nephew who worked in the diamond mines "in charge of the blecks", bad things start to happen.

Atkinson, whose memorable debut Behind the Scenes of the Museum won the Whitbread Prize in 1995, is back in charge of her craft after wobbling badly in the most recent Emotionally Weird.

Here, she slickly spirals people in and out of time and narrative, without confusing the reader. Although Case Histories deals with the grimmest elements of modern life — incest, murder, loneliness, paranoia — Atkinson has an unerring eye for the absurd.

As a bonus, Jackson is a first-rate character in the tradition of the rumpled middle-aged detective, better at solving other people's problems than fixing his own life.

Although Case Histories feels almost like a detective novel, it's more than that. Not every case is solved neatly by the end, but Atkinson does present an entertaining tale — sometimes shocking, sometimes laughable — of how our lives intertwine and actions reverberate.

* Doubleday, $34.95