One Good Turn deserves murder
January 24, 2007
One good thing about nursing a recent midwinter cold was “One Good Turn.” Curled up in my down comforter with a cup of steaming chamomile tea, a box of Kleenex and Kate Atkinson’s latest page-turner made being sick almost pleasurable.
The book opens with a bang, a fender bender that suddenly escalates into road rage. Further blood and mayhem are prevented by an unlikely hero, Martin Canning, a bystander in line for a performance at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival.Martin lives in a fantasy world and writes fantasy mysteries, featuring a girl detective in postwar 1940s Great Britain. “His life had been lived in some kind of neutral gear, he had never broken a limb, never been stung by a bee, never been close to love or death. He had never strived for greatness, and his reward had been small life.”Because of one good turn – namely Martin’s care and concern for the road rage victim – his life abruptly shifts from neutral to overdrive to out of control. Jackson Brodie, the strong-but-sensitive ex-cop, ex-private detective introduced in Atkinson’s previous book, “Case Histories,” is also in the crowd of theatergoers, and he’s reluctantly pulled into the thickening plot. And Atkinson delivers on plot, which is tight (the book is divided into four fast-paced lethal days), multilayered (like the wooden Russian nesting dolls that figure in the story) and surprising (I won’t tell).
There’s no supporting cast – everyone has an important role: A sleazy real estate developer, his fed-up wife, a disgusting comedian, a Russian circus performer, an attractive detective who’s single-parenting a teenage crook, and Jackson’s actress girlfriend, whose best role was as a dog.With such good storytelling, it’s a bonus to have characters with complicated childhoods, relationships and thoughts that drive this satisfying book. In fact, dialogue is not important to Atkinson. It’s not what people say; it’s finding what makes people who they are, what makes them do what they do. The digging is what interests Atkinson.She is an unforgiving observer of family treachery and a savagely funny chronicler of contemporary Great Britain (Atkinson is to the U.K. what Carl Hiaasen is to Florida). “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” Atkinson’s first novel, was chosen as the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year.I rushed to tell co-worker and book pal Su Lum that I had a really good read to share. “I got that book for Christmas too!” she exclaimed. The next day I found Su’s old copy of “Case Histories” on my desk. It’s the perfect antidote for a bad case of page-turning withdrawal.