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Atkinson, Kate - 'One Good Turn'
Hardback: 396 pages (Oct. 2006) Publisher: Doubleday Canada ISBN: 0385662602

When reviewers and publishers talk about 'crossover' or 'breakthrough' novels, they are usually talking about a move from genre fiction into the real McCoy - literature. For Kate Atkinson and CASE HISTORIES the breakthrough went, thankfully, the other way, from mainstream, Whitbread-winning literary fiction to crime. Readers who, like myself, feared that the book would be a one-off will be relieved to have detective Jackson Brodie back, back in Britain, back from France, and back detecting.

The more or less happy ending of CASE HISTORIES saw Jackson a rich man, one well on his way to a relationship with his ex-client, Julia, and a happy retirement in France. Now he is in Edinburgh, where Julia is performing in a horrendous Fringe play and he is pretty much at loose ends, especially since Julia is suspiciously 'busy' much of the time. Wandering the over-crowded Edinburgh streets at Festival time, he witnesses what seems to be a dramatic example of road rage, an attack with that British street weapon of choice, a baseball bat, being wielded by the driver of a Honda Civic that has just rear-ended another motorist. Serious injury or death is averted only when a bystander lobs his laptop at the assailant's head, putting him off his stroke. The laptop owner is Martin Canning, a normally unassertive writer of nostalgic mysteries set in the 1940s and featuring a jolly girl detective. Also present in the crowd is Mrs Gloria Hatter, who will contemplate the imminent demise of her shady estate developer husband with impressive sang-froid. Hatter has succumbed to a heart attack while in bed with a Russian call-girl named, or so she says, Jo-Jo, thus avoiding arrest on unspecified but clearly discreditable charges.

And so Atkinson launches her various narratives, effortlessly switching from one to another and moving back and forth in her characters' lives, all the while providing a mercilessly witty commentary on the peculiarities of modern life. At the centre of it all are Brodie, that genuinely nice man, who is constitutionally incapable of ignoring a crime and Martin Canning, whom crime seems unaccountably to seek out. Poor Martin, who yearns for an imaginary domestic simplicity situated in post-war Britain slightly before he was born, where Nina Riley, his girl detective, can confront and best evils that are both limited and defined.

The image that Atkinson develops to embody her technique in this novel is the matryoshka doll, the Russian souvenir in which a hollow wooden doll encloses a series of ever-smaller images of itself until the solid, tiny, centre doll is reached. But there is a brilliant circularity to the book as well, one that brings the reader back to a character one has all but forgotten, and brings the novel to a satisfactory, if sardonic, conclusion.

On the covers of the Canadian and American editions of NO GOOD TURN a bashed-in door appears, suggesting an eruption of violence in a peaceful middle-class setting. The British cover, on the other hand, features a series of cartoon-y matryoshka dolls, a fairly giddy type face, and the novel's sub-title, 'A Jolly Murder Mystery,' a line that has to wait for the title-page of the American edition. Neither approach is quite right, the first being too blunt, the second too twee. This is not a very jolly book at all, though it is a very funny one, nor is it about the intrusion of danger from without, though that certainly does happen. It is a deeper, sadder book than either image would suggest, and a worthy successor to CASE HISTORIES. One can only hope that Kate Atkinson will do her her readers yet another good turn and send Jackson Brodie our way once more and soon.

Yvonne Klein, Canada
October 2006

last updated 23/03/2008 21:03