One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson: A review

Kate Atkinson's mysteries read like literary fiction. Very, very good literary fiction. She manipulates her multiple story lines to construct a tight and intricately woven tale that is fast-paced and keeps the reader turning those pages. She writes with wit and humor, but also manages to convey the melancholy, loneliness, and regret of her characters without ever being maudlin. In other words, she is able to present a full portrait of their humanity. 

Moreover, in One Good Turn, she delivers a delicious and particularly satisfying twist at the end. I loved it!

In this book, we again meet Jackson Brodie, the ex-army, ex-police, and now ex-private detective. At the end of Case Histories, Jackson had inherited two million pounds from a grateful client and had sold his private detective agency and gone to live in France. 

He had started an affair with one of his former clients from that first book, Julia the actress. Now, Julia has taken a part in a production to be presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Brodie travels with her to the city.

On a street in Edinburgh one day, Jackson witnesses an incident of road rage. A car has to brake suddenly to avoid hitting a pedestrian and the vehicle behind rear-ends the car. The driver of the rear vehicle, a mountain of a man, jumps out of his SUV with a baseball bat and attacks the driver of the car. The man goes down and his attacker turns his ire to the victim's car and beats it to a pulp. Then he returns to the victim to deliver the coup de grace as horrified bystanders, including Jackson Brodie, watch. 

Before he can complete the action, one of the bystanders tosses his briefcase with a laptop in it at the attacker. Miraculously, it hits him and knocks him down. When he picks himself up, he gets in his vehicle and leaves. 

The owner of the briefcase goes to the aid of the injured man as the police arrive. Brodie, who had been preparing to intervene, is off the hook and goes on his way. But he had automatically noted the license plate number of the attacker's vehicle. Thereby hangs a tale.

One of the bystanders was a woman named Gloria Hatter, the wife of a local entrepreneur named Graham. Graham is a builder who puts up particularly shoddy housing all over town, while bribing inspectors to look the other way. He also has other business interests that will come to light in the course of the book. He is just about half a step ahead of the Fraud Squad. Graham is a very rich and a very cruel man. Gloria is a desperately unhappy woman with a plan. 

Another of the bystanders, the man who threw the briefcase, is Martin Canning, a writer of schlocky mysteries. Martin has a major role to play in this story.

All of the disparate threads of this tale seem totally unconnected at first. In addition to the ones I've mentioned, we have Russian prostitutes, teenage delinquents, a female inspector with the Lothian and Borders Police, a stand-up comedian, and others too numerous to mention. But Atkinson weaves her magic and in the end all of those disparate threads come together in a pattern that has the execrable Graham Hatter squarely at its center, and we finally see that everything really does connect. 

This is absolutely a masterful job of plotting and of handling a large cast of characters while making each of them distinct and memorable. Atkinson is a formidable writer, whether you label her work mysteries or literary fiction. She defies categorization. And that is a good thing.


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