Thursday, June 2, 2011

One Good Turn

by Kate Atkinson
New York, Little, Brown, 2006
418 pages     Fiction

Just for the record, I love Kate Atkinson. I think the structure and the characters of One Good Turn are brilliant, and it is a fitting sequel to Case Histories which is the first in the series of four books about Jackson Brodie who “used to be a policeman.” One Good Turn is followed by When Will There Be Good News? and Started Early Took My Dog. You can find my review of Case Histories here:

Jackson Brodie is an ex-cop, ex-private detective, new millionaire, and full-time conflicted personality. The beauty of Jackson Brodie is that he is endearingly conflicted about his relationships, about being the “idle rich,” and about his place in the world. He is, in the eyes of a woman detective, “someone who had weathered the world and still had something left to give.”

Unlike Case Histories, which spans a lot of years, One Good Turn involves a lot of people over a few days. It is the week of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and Jackson comes to be with his girlfriend, Julia, who is acting in a play at one of the venues. Jackson has a lot of time to spare and in his wanderings is involved in an incident of road rage. The people impacted by the incident all spiral together into a total mess of murder and mayhem which sorts itself out over the next few days. Jackson Brodie is not the most important character in the plot; he just happens to be one of those involved.

In a book by Kate Atkinson, it is not the mayhem itself that is important, it is how the carefully crafter characters respond to the mayhem. As the New York Times reviewer says, “how much easier it is to explain a death than to solve a life.” These lives are extremely complex, and the reader finds herself so engrossed in the messed-up lives and messed-up relationships it feels like there are several jigsaw puzzles to be put together.

The plot ties all the diverse characters together. And there are plenty of questions to be answered. Why hasn’t Gloria told the company that her husband, the owner, has had a stroke and is dying in the hospital? How did teenagers Archie and Hamish find the memory stick with Martin’s book on it? What is the mystery involving Martin and a prostitute in Moscow? Who is the girl who washed up on the beach? Who in the world is the man who caused the road rage that caused these events to spiral out of control? Why have we read no more about the man in the Peugeot? And what in the world do the Russian nesting dolls have to do with anything?

Atkinson is such an insightful and humorous writer that I found myself wanting to write down comment after comment and wry insight after wry insight. I wanted to share it all. Let me just share a few. Here is what she says about Martin: “He had never strived for greatness and his reward had been a small life.” Martin’s sister-in-law: “. . . a woman who ran with hyenas.” A gay character: “. . . more camp than a scout jamboree.” Well, I could go on and on. Ultimately, Atkinson is so clever, so funny, and so insightful that the words and phrases fairly jump off the page. This is not the usual stuff of murder mysteries.

The reviewer in The Guardian says this about Atkinson’s writing in One Good Turn: “She’s less interested in bringing perpetrators to justice than in exposing the engines of complicity, weakness and ego that drive seemingly innocent witnesses and victims.” And: “. . .the pleasure of One Good Turn lies in the ride, in Atkinson's wry, unvanquished characters, her swooping, savvy, sarcastic prose and authorial joie de vivre.”

As the book was winding down, and I was sighing with the delight of it all, Jackson Brodie rides off into the sunset in his rented car, windows open with Motown music filling the air. And the Motown group that was singing was the Velvelettes—Kalamazoo’s call to musical fame! It was like the book was written just for me.

Here is the New York Times review:

The review in the Guardian:

An interview with Kate Atkinson on NPR:

The Case Histories series has been turned into a BBC six-part series with Jason Isaacs in the role of Jackson Brodie. I couldn’t find when it will be on BBC America. Hopefully soon.

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