Friday, November 15, 2019

One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson

After Case Histories comes One Good Turn, which brings former soldier, cop and private detective Jackson Brodie out of retirement, ruining the happy ending of that previous, devastatingly sad book.

Jackson's at the Edinburgh Festival where his actress girlfriend is in a terrible play. Idling around without her during the day, Jackson is by chance witness to a moment's road rage but doesn't want to get involved. He then, by chance, discovers a dead body - but loses it again. Then a man tries to kill him, and when Jackson fights back he ends up on a charge. This does not help convince newly promoted Detective Sergeant Louise Monroe that he is a good guy. Which is tricky because Lousie and Jackson clearly fancy one another...

In fact, Jackson doesn't turn up until page 51 and the road rage incident is first conveyed from the perspective of two other people, including Martin Canning - an author of not very good detective stories, which allows Atkinson some fun. For example, there's the flashback to Martin taking a first writing class and the teacher's words that inspired him to make it his job:
"You're the only one in the class who can put one word in front of another and not make want to fucking puke, excuse my split infinitive. You should be a writer." (p. 38)
There's the strange competition and jockeying for position that goes on at panels of writers. Or there's the simple truth of what writing involves:
"For some reason people thought it was a glamorous profession but Martin couldn't find anything glamorous about sitting in a room on your own, day after day, trying not to go mad." (p. 122) 
There's a lot of this - the meandering thoughts of the characters in whose heads we're in, their memories and connections and musings. Concealed in some of this are vital clues to the plot, but it largely feels like Atkinson is just having fun. The result is that the story, for all it is about murder and corruption, and the disintegration of relationships, is much less cold and disturbing than Case Histories.

Yet there are moments when she twists the knife, as when a character I won't name here is encumbered by a dead body.
"The only thing he could see was her handbag. He rifled through it to make sure there was nothing to incriminate him, that she hadn't written down his name and hotel address. Nothing, just a cheap purse, some keys, a tissue and lipstick. A photograph in a plastic wallet. The photograph was of a baby, its sex indeterminate. [Name] refused to think about the significance of a photograph of a baby." (p. 494)
That's horrific, as is what then happens to the body.
"He had thrown a human being away like rubbish." (p. 496) 
That haunts the reader as it does the man I won't name.

Atkinson is brilliant at these distinct characters, and the book is full of telling detail. Another principal figure is Gloria Hatter, frustrated wife of a dodgy businessman. Gloria poses as a potential buyer to nose rounds the houses that her husband's company builds, and gives a perfectly withering assessment of the company - and him.
"Everything was built to the tightest specifications, as little garden as possible, the smallest bathroom - it was as if a very mean person had decided to build houses." (p. 254)
As before, the disparate elements are eventually woven together in a satisfying way. My only disquiet is what happens in Jackson's love life - he's told something towards the end of the novel about a third party, but not who that is or what exactly happened, a mystery that lingers. But I loved the final pages in which we return to a character from the beginning and learn something new and devastating and brilliant about someone we thought we knew.

I'm very much looking forward to the next Jackson Brodie novel, When Will There Be Good News?


I've added this sighting to my list of Doctor Who references in non-Doctor Who books:
"He had another cup of coffee as he walked, dispensed from a kiosk that used to be a blue police box, a Tardis. It was a strange world, Jackson thought. Yes, sirree." (p. 274)

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