Review: One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
Genre: crime mystery
If the title of this book reminds you of an old saying ‘One Good Turn Deserves Another’ you are perfectly right. On a beautiful summer day, crowds lined up outside an Edinburgh theatre witness an act of road rage: a tap on a fender makes a bald, baseball bat-wielding owner of the damaged Honda attack the other driver with the clear intention to smash his unworthy scull and batter him to death. Fortunately one of the onlookers dares to react, and he does it just in time to save the victim’s life, throwing at the perpetrator the first thing he could grab – his laptop. This is the good turn of the title which kicks off all the action.
The brave savior of the careless driver is called Martin. Professionally he is a fairly successful writer but privately – a shy, isolated, deeply unhappy man. Martin, when he isn’t writing cheesy novels about the exploits of equally bland Nina Riley or fretting over a mysterious “Russian incident” that teasingly unfolds over the course of the novel, provides an opportunity for much fun at the expense of writers, their agents and the readers. He lets stay in his house a has-been comedian who wants to earn some money during the Fringe, and preys on Martin’s complete lack of assertiveness.
Another main character, Jackson Brodie, ex-cop, ex-private detective and a new millionaire, is also among the bystanders. His partner, Julia is one of the actresses performing in an avant-garde (read: horribly senseless) Fringe play, partly financed by Jackson; as Julia seems to be always busy Jackson has plenty of time to kill and nothing interesting to do. He finally finds his purpose in the shape of a body washed up on Cramond Island and then snatched back by the tide – a dead young woman without identity. Her death is somehow connected to the road rage incident and Brodie’s cop instinct makes him pick up the scent and follow it, although he is repeatedly told not to by the police officers.
The investigation thrusts Jackson into the orbit of Gloria, an elderly wife of a dishonest real estate tycoon; she has just found out that her husband had had a cardiac arrest in the arms of a beautiful Russian call girl and lies unconscious in hospital. Gloria also happened to be among gawping onlookers outside the theatre; she recognized the perpetrator but she doesn’t even think of going to the police; she has a plan of her own to implement now. Is it possible to arrange a fresh start in life when you are a 70+ housewife who’s just realized she had spent most of her best years with a wrong kind of man and her adult children couldn’t care less whether their mum is happy or not?
Then finally we meet Archie, the only son of DI Louise Monroe, who, with another teenager, treats shoplifting as a kind of extreme sport cum theatrical performance. His single working mother ends up investigating the case of Jackson’s vanished corpse and finds herself fancying Jackson more than she ought. Will she finally find out about her son’s activities? Will she understand the fact that her son lacks parental guidance to say the least of it?
It was often repeated that Atkinson developed the plot of this novel in the manner of a matryoshka – one of most popular Russian souvenirs, consisting of a set of nestling wooden dolls, hollow inside, with the last solid one in the centre. Somehow I don’t agree with this comparison, maybe because I own several sets of charming matryoshkas myself and I am well aware how they work. I would rather say this novel is like an intricate pattern of a bigger picture or a maze. You follow some lines, then the others, not fully comprehending the whole until you enter a platform in the middle and can see the structure from above, finally understanding how all the strands come together into a single entity and how they are connected and intertwined.
Having said that I must admit that “One Good Turn” is an absolute joy to read. The author tells the story from many different POVs and we often read about the same event several times. The retelling, however, is done just to keep you guessing; not often enough to be redundant. It is also full of quiet, snappish, ironic humour – something I value highly in any book.
I loved the characters too. Each one was definitely unique and real. I could relate to bits and pieces of Gloria, Louise, Jackson and poor, introvert Martin. I loved getting into their heads and understanding their thoughts and emotions and I was really eager to learn the whole story of Martin’s “incident” in Russia. Gloria had my sincerest sympathy too – the way she behaved in time of crisis was full of dignity and she kept her wits about her all the time. The ending included certainly several surprises for me!
Last but not least, I also enjoyed the pictures of the Edinburgh scenery that the author paints for her readers. I have been there for a short period of time one summer, just before the Fringe, and it was great to be able to place the characters on the streets that I have walked or the castle that I have visited. It does make a difference when you read about a city you actually know.
My single complaint is about Gloria’s husband and the “Honda Man”, two villains of the piece. Contrary to the main characters, they are hardly three-dimensional, the first being unconscious all the time and the second being described only superficially whenever he pops up wielding his faithful baseball bat. Pity, I like the baddies well-rounded and complex.
Definitely a position worth reading even if you are not fond of whodunits.