With her first novels --- particularly her Whitbread Award-winning BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM --- Kate Atkinson earned a well-deserved reputation for writing ambitious, witty literary fiction. With the publication of her 2004 novel CASE HISTORIES, however, Atkinson's fiction went in an entirely different direction. A smart, multifaceted novel with all the sophistication and literary adroitness her fans had come to expect, CASE HISTORIES was nonetheless a crime novel --- one that dared to challenge readers while defying genre expectations.
Atkinson's latest, ONE GOOD TURN, is a sequel of sorts to CASE HISTORIES, inasmuch as it features the return of its protagonist. Jackson Brodie, the divorced father and former private investigator, has taken his large and rather unexpected inheritance to France, where he lives a quiet, crime-free life ("filling up...iPods with sad country songs and feeding apples to French donkeys"). At the beginning of ONE GOOD TURN, Jackson is back in the U.K., accompanying his actress girlfriend Julia (about whom he's having serious doubts) to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where she is starring in a thoroughly awful experimental play.
Left to his own devices while Julia is at rehearsal, Jackson becomes a reluctant tourist, too often winding up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He witnesses a road-rage incident that quickly spirals out of control and later discovers a woman's dead body washed up on rocky shores. When the tide sweeps the body back out to sea before Jackson can retrieve it, he becomes something of a running joke --- and later a suspect --- down at the local police station.
As for Jackson, he purposely removes himself from any investigations, not even coming forward when he notes the license plate on a crime-scene vehicle. The last thing he wants is to step back into the world of crime, investigation and police business --- that is, until he meets sexy, smart detective Louise Monroe. As if by instinct, Jackson is back in the game, helping to track down a missing body and an elusive killer, all while questioning the desires of his heart and the direction of his life.
The description I've written here might make Atkinson's book sound fairly typical, the kind of "ex-detective gets back in the game" plot that is the stuff of too many crime novels and Hollywood movies. To reduce ONE GOOD TURN to that level, though, is to ignore about 95 percent of what's happening in the novel. For one thing, Jackson is only one of a bountiful cast of eccentric, well-developed characters, each of whom has his or her own role to play in the car crash that opens the story. Perspectives shift, horizons broaden and Atkinson gradually reveals the extent of the many connections --- known and unknown --- that bring together these remarkably divergent personalities into a plot that extends farther than any of them suspects.
Although crime-novel purists probably resist using the "mystery" term to describe Atkinson's most recent forays into fiction, that is the most straightforward way to describe her two most recent efforts. Certainly, readers expecting a classic "whodunit" will be disappointed by that aspect of the novel. But that's not really the point here. ONE GOOD TURN, although not quite as skillful or inventive as its predecessor, is more of a collective character study, one that seeks to explore the layers of loss and disappointment that cloud all its characters' lives while adeptly linking them together in ways that will continuously delight and surprise readers.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 13, 2011