Published by Little, Brown and Company
Review by W. R. Greer
One Good Turn begins with a minor fender bender at the International Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland that turns into an act of road rage. A man going under an assumed name of Paul Bradley is rear-ended by a man driving a Honda in front of a crowd waiting to enter one of the festival's events. When he exits his car, the driver of the Honda cracks him in the head with a baseball bat. As the Honda man is about to strike a second, and fatal, blow on the prone Paul Bradley, a tossed laptop computer clips the Honda man and causes him to leave.
This "one good turn" of saving a stranger's life sets the novel's events into motion. The laptop was thrown by Martin Canning, a lonely writer who is such a nonentity that he travels through life mostly unnoticed. He writes a series of mystery books under the pseudonym Alex Blake, a name his editors chose without much input from him. The heroine of his novels is Nina Riley, a chaste young woman in the 1940s who inherits a detective agency and solves soft-boiled crimes that always end with a pat ending. It's made Martin Canning a wealthy man, but he lives an isolated life, living in a dream world. He's constantly imagining a sweet domestic life complete with adoring wife and sensible children, but most people see him as an asexual weird little man. He also harbors a dark secret.
Also in the queue and witnessing the altercation are Jackson Brodie and Gloria Hatter. Jackson, first introduced in Kate Atkinson's Case Histories, is a retired police detective who inherited a lot of money and retired to the south of France. He's come to the festival accompanying his girlfriend, Julia, a flighty actress who's appearing in one of the plays. They're a mismatched couple and Jackson gets an increasingly cold shoulder from her as the novel progresses. Jackson's police background kicks in when he witnesses the crime, but he tells himself not to get involved. Unsurprisingly, he finds it increasingly more difficult not to. For lack of anything else to do, it gives him a chance to occupy himself while trying to kill time in a city he'd rather not visit.
Gloria Hatter is a wealthy 60-year old woman whose cruel and arrogant husband, Graham, has suffered a massive heart attack while in bed with another woman. She knows the life she's known is unraveling. Graham runs a corporation that build homes (Hatter Homes—Real Homes for Real People), but he cuts corners on their construction, launders money, cooks the books, and is involved in any number of illegal schemes. Gloria goes about planning a new life without Graham, knowing that the police Fraud Unit is closing in on his operation. Gloria is listed as a director for the corporation, even though she has no involvement in its day-to-day activities, and she knows that all the wealth Graham amassed will probably be taken away. She's been skimming money from the corporate accounts that she suspects she'll need in her new life. She wanders through her house, replacing items Graham had chosen over her objections with new items she prefers. She ignores the constantly ringing phone and answering machine messages from Graham's frantic employees trying to find him, unaware that he lies comatose in a hospital bed.
Playing unhappy tourist, Jackson Brodie spots a woman's body in the sea. He nearly drowns in his attempt to save her, not realizing she's already dead. Once he's rescued, there's no sign of a corpse, which makes the police, including Detective Louise Monroe, suspicious of his story. Louise is a single mom raising a teenage boy who is developing a shoplifting habit. Her son was conceived in the back of a car and the father was never involved in their life. She's comfortable being alone with him, although troubled by his adolescent rebelliousness.
Most of One Good Turn revolves around these four lonely characters, and for a while, not much happens in the novel. Kate Atkinson obviously enjoys fleshing out these characters as she fills in their back story and explores their psyche. A lonely, unhappy person is more interesting than a happy, content one, especially to a novelist. For a while the novel meanders along with small bursts of action to revive the plot. Martin accompanies Paul Bradley to the hospital and then to a seedy hotel to make sure he's okay, only to be drugged and robbed. While he's gone, a man is murdered in his house, his office is burgled, and his copy of the latest Nina Riley manuscript is stolen. Jackson has an encounter with the Honda man which lands Jackson in jail, which draws Louise's interest in his actions.
One of the themes that runs throughout the novel are Russian matryoshka dolls, where successively smaller dolls are hidden inside one another. Martin's attempts to buy a set years before threatened to undo his world, and Jackson finds the smallest, innermost doll as a clue. Kate Atkinson, though, uses the metaphor to slowly uncover the stories and secrets of her characters as well as her plot. Her obvious enjoyment of creating and unraveling these characters come through in the novel, and her sentences are structured with their own surprises of humor and insight. You can almost forgive her for a plot, and a mystery, that doesn't seem to go anywhere. The Honda man keeps making menacing appearances, a cleaning service staffed by Russian and Eastern European young women seems connected to everything, and the more Jackson investigates, the more trouble he seems to find for himself.
Just about the point where the paucity of plot gets a bit frustrating, Kate Atkinson begins opening her matryoshka dolls, and each new enlightenment shared by both the characters and reader alike pulls the varied strings of the plot together. The novel moves forward quickly as the plot and character's lives all hurdle towards an explosive intersection. This collection of lonely-hearts heroes find surprises in their own lives and actions, and the enjoyment of it all is a treat to us readers.
Kate Atkinson pulls off this charade, this character mystery that seems to be without a plot, with a satisfying conclusion and the confidence that she knew what she was doing all along. One Good Turn turns out to be one fine novel.
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