Monday, March 28, 2011

In The Spotlight: Kate Atkinson's One Good Turn

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Jan Morrison suggested I spotlight some of Kate Atkinson’s work, and I was excited at the idea. Atkinson’s novels are very interesting blends of crime fiction and character study and her Jackson Brodie has become quite well-liked and popular. So today, let’s take a closer look at Brodie’s second outing One Good Turn.

The novel begins with a car accident in Edinburgh. Paul Bradley brakes his silver Peugot in order not to hit a pedestrian. The driver behind him, though, doesn’t stop in time and hits Bradley’s car with his own blue Honda. The two men get out of their cars and into an argument and within moments, the Honda driver has wielded a baseball bat and is ready to kill Bradley. Several witnesses have gathered, among them Jackson Brodie, a former police officer-turned-private investigator. Brodie’s in Edinburgh for the Arts Festival, mostly because his actress girlfriend Julia is in a play that’s being shown at the Festival. Brodie is making his way towards the front of the crowd almost on instinct when he sees someone else trying to come to the rescue.

Mystery novelist Martin Canning, who’s never done a truly courageous thing in his life, has thrown his computer case at the Honda driver, knocking him down and saving Bradley’s life. Brodie doesn’t want to get involved in the accident, but he sees how upset and shocked Canning is by what he’s done. So Brodie gives the author his name and contact information. Then he leaves the crime scene. For his part, Canning feels compelled to accompany Bradley to the hospital to make sure he’ll be all right. What neither Canning nor Brodie knows is that they’re both about to be drawn into a mystery that involves multiple murders, fraud and theft.

Brodie gets drawn into the events because by sheer chance – being in the wrong place at the wrong time – he becomes a suspect in more than one murder related to the car accident. Canning’s brave act and his decision to be a good Samaritan pull him into the web against his will. As the story goes on, things seem to spiral more and more out of control for both men, but in the end, Brodie is able to figure out how the murders are related to the accident he witnessed, and to clear his name.

One of the most interesting and important elements in this novel is the set of characters. Although Jackson Brodie and Martin Canning are the main characters, some of the others are so strong that one could really see this as an “ensemble cast.” What’s especially intriguing is that each of the important characters is in some way connected to the accident that is the focus of the story. Many of the main characters were eyewitnesses to the accident and we follow them throughout the novel. Brodie is a private investigator with a home in France and a ten-year-old daughter whom he loves very much. He’s got several deep scars from the past and is trying to work out where he’s going next in life. Canning, too, is scarred, but he’s a completely different kind of person. Although he’s quite sane, he lives in a dream world, doesn’t like violence at all, and has never done anything really reckless and daring in his life. He’s the last person you could imagine would be hip-deep in murder and intrigue, and in fact he’s pushed far outside his normal world by the events in the story.

Gloria Hatter and her friend Pam also witness the accident. Gloria’s the wife of successful property developer Graham Hatter, and throughout the novel, we see her wit and intelligence as well as her unhappy home life and the scars that have led to it. And then there’s DS Louise Monroe, whose son Archie sees the accident. She and her team get involved professionally when they investigate one of the murders that figure in the story. She’s achieved a certain amount of respect as a woman in what’s still seen as a man’s world. She’s good at her job and devoted to it. However, she, too, has several deep personal wounds that we learn about as the novel goes on.

There are several more characters, too, who figure in the story, and all of the characters’ lives intersect in more than one way. I don’t want to give away spoilers, so I’ll just offer a few examples. At the time of the car accident, Gloria Hatter and her friend Pam are waiting to see a lunchtime comedy radio broadcast. The featured comic is Richard Mott, who happens to be Martin Canning’s housemate (an interesting story in itself). Canning is also waiting for that same broadcast, as Mott has seen to it that he got a ticket. Jackson Brodie’s girlfriend Julia is acquainted with Mott and gets Brodie a ticket to Mott’s evening performance, so in that way, Mott and Brodie’s lives intersect, too. Gloria Hatter’s friend Pam is a crime fiction fan who, later in the novel, attends an author panel at which Canning appears. In fact, the way our lives are intertwined is an important theme in this novel.

Atkinson very often tells the characters’ stories in flashback, so that element is woven throughout the novel. It’s an interesting way to provide backstory, and in the case of Jackson Brodie, flashbacks tell enough of his story that readers don’t have to have read the first Brodie novel, Case Histories, to follow the plot of this novel. For readers who are comfortable with flashbacks, they’re used effectively here to keep the plot from being too linear and to give the characters’ histories. Readers who don’t enjoy flashbacks may find that they interrupt the flow of the story. Personally (and this is simply my opinion, so feel free to differ with me) I didn’t find that they were overly distracting or disruptive.

Besides the characters and the way their lives come together, another element that ties this story together is the theme of the choices we make and the consequences those choices have. Jackson Brodie’s decision to come to Edinburgh with Julia has consequences. So does Martin Canning’s action of saving Paul Bradley’s life. There are other examples, too, of the way different characters’ choices affect the story but again, no spoilers ;-).

There’s a solid dose of humour in One Good Turn, too. In fact, its subtitle is a Jolly Murder Mystery. For example, Gloria Hatter’s husband Graham is at death’s proverbial door in a hospital after having suffered a massive heart attack during a tryst with his mistress Tatiana, who’s a call girl. Gloria’s marriage is far from a happy one, and she’s really not shocked to find out about Tatiana. In fact, she’s more curious than anything when she meets her. The two have a conversation and then Gloria goes to the ATM at the hospital and withdraws some money:

“Gloria divided the money from the ATM between herself and Tatiana. They had, after all, both earned Graham’s money in their own ways. In the seventies, women had marched for ‘Wages for Housework.’ Wages for sex seemed to make more sense. Housework had to be done whether you liked it or not, but sex was optional.”

And here’s a description of Gloria’s relationship with Pam:

“Pam wasn’t what Gloria would have called a friend, just someone she had known for so long that she had given up trying to get rid of her.”

There are several other events, too, that that you could call darkly comical. For example, the car accident is tied to a murder that occurs a bit later in the novel. Because of a case of mistaken identity, everyone thinks at first that the victim is Martin Canning, and he has an interesting time proving that he’s alive.

In this novel, a single moment – a car accident – brings together a motley crew of people and sets in motion a chain of events that almost take on a life of their own. Traces of dark humour, an Edinburgh setting and some fascinating characters tie this story together. But what’s your view? Have you read One Good Turn? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 4 April/Tuesday 5 April – Fer de Lance – Rex Stout

Monday 11 April/Tuesday 12 April – The Redemption of Alexander Seaton – Shona MacLean

Monday 18 April/Tuesday 19 April – The Blank Page – K.C. Constantine


  1. I enjoyed Atkinson´s first novel, and I loved the third one, but for some reason this initial car accident annoyed me. The incident struck me as unmotivated, and after that I just didn´t ´buy it´. Well, she will probably swipe me off my feet again with her forth, and I think she will survive that I was less than thrilled with ONE of her books :D

  2. Dorte - I've had that happen, too, where I've truly loved an author's work, and then been less than impressed with one of his or her novels. I do understand what you mean about the car accident. Perhaps she just intended it to be one of those "twists of fate," but I can see why you didn't think much of it. I have to admit, some of the characters really appealed to me, though.

  3. What a great book! No, I haven't read it but I will put it on my TBR list. I love that one incidence will bring a cast of people together. It's been done in movies. Thanks for spotlighting it.

  4. Clarissa - That's one thing that really interested me about the book, too - that one by-chance incident that brings a disparate group of people together and has all sorts of consequences. That strategy, I thought, was really interesting. I hope you'll enjoy this.

  5. I enjoyed this book very much, I read it earlier this year. (Great review, by the way, Margot). I particularly liked the character of Gloria. However, I did find myself getting progressively more irritated with it, eg Jackson Brodie's passivity and the "sex trafficking" theme just is not the kind of thing you can handle lightly, as here, in my opinion.

    I am not sure if Dorte got to the end of this novel, but the car accident rationale is in the punchline (or twist) at the end, if you hadn't guessed it earlier.

  6. Maxine I did, and I know ALL her books are full of coincidences - for some reason the car accident just kept annoying me.

  7. Maxine - Thank you :-). I actually liked the character of Gloria very much, too; her character is handled with wit and sympathy and she's an interesting person. You do have a point about the "sex trafficking" theme. That is, of course, a horrible crime and it's a good question whether or not themes like that are best handled in lighter novels. That's a very difficult call, I sometimes think, for an author to make - are there issues that shouldn't be taken up in certain kinds of novels? Really interesting question and I can certainly see why you thought that issue was handled too lightly.

    Dorte - Isn't interesting how certain things about a book annoy us or for the matter of that please us even if we don't exactly know the reason? Your comment about the car accident is also a really good reminder that if a reader gets pulled out of a story, it's very hard to draw that reader completely back in.

  8. Read the first one in the series and have the second two on my TBR pile. I also liked her books before she took to writing crime fiction. And the new one looks brilliant.

  9. Margot, thanks for another wonderful spotlight of a 'new to me' author and book. I love the sound of this plot. Sounds like it would keep you guessing from beginning to end. Another book to add to my ever growing list. :)

    Thoughts in Progress

  10. Patti - I admit, I haven't read Atkinson's non-crime fiction. I really should, because I do like her Jackson Brodie series quite a lot :-). I really ought to give her other books a try.

    Mason - Oh, no need to thank me; I love sharing books :-). And this one does have some very interesting twists and turns in it. What's especially interesting is that several of the incidents in the story are told from different perspectives, so you get to see more than one "lens" on the same event.

  11. I haven't read One Dark Turn, but I do love dark humor stories. Fargo, Pulp Fiction, The Matador for example are good movies with dark humor.

  12. Stephen - Oh, Fargo is one of my favourite movies! There is a lot of good dark humour in it, and the suspense is well done. Love the character of Marge Gundersen, too :-).

  13. Oh, I want to read this book! Thanks, Margot. Dark humour has always appealed to me and I've been told my games are full of it. (take that however you wish). I'm also relieved to discover a book with an ensemble cast for obvious reasons.

  14. Elspeth - ...and this book definitely has that (the cast, I mean). I really do need to get one of your games. A mystery puzzle, some dark humour, a well-crafted whodunit - what more to ask? I hope you'll enjoy this novel. As you can see from the comments, it's not perfect. But neither am I.