One good turn
Can you be simultaneously enthralled with and utterly bewildered by the same book, the same author? If you read Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, the answer is yes.
I reviewed Case Histories, her first book starring Brodie, a month or so back, and noted at the time that while I felt like Brodie was a great anchor for the three disparate cold cases being explored in that book, the mysteries were composed of equal parts frustration and intrigue. Little did I know the foreshadowing in which I was participating when I assayed to read the second Brodie book, One Good Turn.
In this book, Jackson is even less involved, in some ways, than in the last; he isn’t hired by anyone to do anything until more than two-thirds of the way through. For most of it, he is a hapless bystander forced into participation by circumstance, as are the other four (six? it’s hard to say) significant characters. You almost couldn’t call this “his” story, except peripherally.
The setting is the Edinburgh Festival (Fringe?), and Jackson is there to support his girlfriend, Julia, an actress appearing in an existential play in a grotty venue on an unappealing street at the heart of the city. He is not entirely comfortable in this mostly passive tag-along role, and in fact has been uncomfortable in general for some time—ever since he inherited big money from one of his clients and retired from his private detective gig to buy a villa in France. He feels at loose ends wherever he is, although being with Julia at least puts him in a committed relationship. He still reacts like a policeman, and is hard pressed not to act like one when the opportunity arises, as it eventually does in this book.
First, though, we meet the other significant protagonists in this crazy casserole of a story, who are on parallel tracks that converge at unexpected intersections as the book unfolds. There is Martin, a meek and reclusive writer of cosy mystery novels, who uncharacteristically intervenes in a road rage incident and is caught up in undesirable relationships with victims, perpetrators, and bystanders as a result; there is Gloria, whose dicey husband is in a coma after a night with a Russian prostitute; and there is Louise, a Scottish police detective, who is present on the scene of most of the significant events of the story. As they and Jackson each attempt to do the right thing, the “one good turn” for another person, the casualties mount up and the circumstances become ever more ridiculous. Instead of “one good turn deserves another,” it’s “one good turn deserves a murder.”
I guess you could say there is a larger mystery that encompasses all the smaller, bewildering coincidences that occur in the course of this tale; but the mystery isn’t really the point. The development of characters is the point, and the action is reliant on the personality quirks of each individual who enters the story to leave footprints, large or small. I would venture to say that Atkinson is evolving a formula, but it’s definitely not one that would be recognizable to mystery readers who are looking for logical plots, clear indicators of right and wrong, and a satisfying conclusion (although there is a final twist in this one that is definitely gratifying).
Atkinson does have a bad habit of introducing her characters and then going off on rambling revelations about their back story while the reader is hung up in the dramatic moment left in freeze-frame until she is done. But the jerky, start-and-stop momentum of this book seemed congruent with the atmosphere of a city overwhelmed by distracted holiday-makers, and we do eventually get to the point (or points).
There was less of Jackson in this one than I would have liked, and also less of Louise the police detective, who is obviously meant to be a love interest at some point (and if she’s not, I’m going to be unhappy with Kate). But the writing is a joy, and I will continue on with the Brodie saga, out of sheer curiosity about what choices he will make next.