Tuesday, July 16, 2013

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

One Good Turn is the second in a very unlikely mystery series: unlikely both in its very existence and in its popularity. Kate Atkinson is a literary writer by temperament -- she won the Whitbread Award for her novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum, for example -- whose fourth novel, Case Histories, had a private detective as a major character and concerned some criminal activities. (See my belated and fuzzy review for more.)

Case Histories wasn't much like a genre mystery, but mystery-lovers around the world picked up on it -- I got my first copy of it from my then-colleague, the editor of the Mystery Guild -- perhaps because it was a damn good novel with some mystery elements in it, or perhaps just because the crime fiction field is vast and expansive, with room even for great books that don't fit into marketing categories. In any case, Atkinson wrote three further novels with Jackson Brodie in them -- it's not fair to say they're "Jackson Brodie" novels, given her multi-plot-line style and social novelist's eye -- which are treated as a mystery series, despite how poorly they fit into the usual definition of that category.

One Good Turn is set a year or so after Case Histories; Brodie's life has been changed by the end of Histories, and he's left the private-detective business to be, mostly, a man of leisure in a small house in France. But, for the course of this book, he's in Edinburgh for the Festival, trailing his actress girlfriend Julia and not enjoying anything at all. He's not central to this book -- not even as much as he was central to Histories -- but he is one way into it, and turns out to be perhaps the most unbiased of all of the viewpoint characters.

The plot sprawls out over several days, set off in the very first section by a road-rage incident that ends with quiet, mousy crime writer Martin Canning saving a life almost against his own will, which drags him into the plots of both the attacker and attackee -- each of whom is in Edinburgh for very specific but initially murky reasons. Several bodies pile up quickly -- seemingly without any connection to each other -- and the local police investigate in the form of DI Louise Monroe, who has her own complicated connections to other parts of the case.

Like Case Histories, One Good Turn loops around through a small group of people who end up being more connected than we would expect -- but, unlike Histories, it all happens in a much smaller time and space. If I were wearing a serious lit-crit hat, I'd probably rumble on about how Atkinson came from family sagas, with their vast scope of time and space, to the saga-ish Histories and then realized that crime fiction could give her the chance to compress a similar amount of action and event into less than a week. Whatever the reason, Atkinson tells a compact, tight story here, with threads that appear to be separate at first inexorably pulling closer and closer as we realize who all of these people are to each other -- all the way up to the very last line of the novel.

One Good Turn is a damn good book, and doesn't require knowledge of Case Histories -- Jackson Brodie is in no way a series detective, just a guy around whom interesting things happened a few times. And it shows what a serious writer with an eye for humor and character and the often bloody vicissitudes of life can do when she finds herself in the crime fiction arena, and what a crime plot can do to enliven and up the stakes for a novel of character and connection.

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