Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson
Doubleday, $38.99

Kate Atkinson began as a prize-winning literary novelist with Behind the Scenes At The Museum and has reinvented herself by using the tropes of detective fiction. She's just as serious and formally interesting as ever, only her novels - featuring ex-policeman, Jackson Brodie - involve unravelling a couple of murders.

With their startling first chapters, appealing cast of characters and meticulous observation of reality, they read like Elizabeth George crossed with Elizabeth Bowen.

The fourth, Started Early, Took My Dog, is about child abduction, and people who fall through the cracks of modern Britain unless somebody bothers to help. The narrative switches between the 1970s and today with dizzying, at times perplexing, skill. Tracy, its hefty heroine is, like Brodie, ex-police. As a young copper she finds a starving, half-frozen child in a flat with his murdered mother. Tracy persists in asking questions, and the child disappears.

Haunted by this, she makes one of those snap decisions by which Atkinson's characters change their lives. She buys an abused girl off the child's junkie mother. Days later, the mother is murdered and Tracy and little Courteney are on the run.

Brodie, too, rescues a small dog, whose endearing nature makes him a more restful companion than the irritating Julia, mother of Brodie's son (or, for that matter, Courteney). Brodie and dog embark on a hunt for the natural family of a young woman in New Zealand who has asked for his help. Our hero loves poetry which, like all literary coppers, makes him rather too much of a mouthpiece for his creator, but he's still game for a fight and some heroic antics.

Inevitably, his path crosses Tracy's. One of the pleasures of the series is the way Atkinson brings people together, each unaware of the other's private dramas. Less successful are the passages depicting the bent coppers at the heart of the plot and an elderly actress, Tilly, who is descending into dementia.

The novel is awash with metafictional asides and doppelgangers - there's even a second private detective called Jackson tailing Brodie - and Tilly's collapsing sanity makes this blurring between "fiction" and "reality" irritating.

Atkinson's detective novels capture the strangeness of modern times, with spiky wit, emotional intelligence and consummate cleverness. All her novels are about the choices we make and the things we leave behind; about parenthood and the anguish that vulnerability brings. Above all, they scrutinise an England too few literary novelists seem to notice, or care about.

- INDEPENDENT