Onyx reviews: One Good Turn
by Kate Atkinson
Nearly half a million people live in Edinburgh, but Kate Atkinson manages
to make the Scottish capital seem like a small town, the way everyone's paths
keep crossing in One Good Turn. It's like the movie Crash, except the
characters' stories radiate outward after the accident. Instead of six degrees
of separation, the characters in One Good Turn are separated by one
degree at most. At first, it seems like a fabulous set of coincidences but, as
one character is fond of saying, "A coincidence is just an explanation
waiting to happen."
The car accident that catalyzes events is innocuous enough. A man is
rear-ended while driving through streets crowded with tourists attending the
Fringe Festival. Readers are told the man has secrets, including his name and
his purpose for being in Edinburgh—but the driver of the Honda who runs into him
has a temper and a baseball bat.
The confrontation quickly spirals out of control. A bystander helps defuse
the situation by throwing the bag containing his laptop computer at the man with
the baseball bat just as the attacker was about to deliver what surely would
have been a fatal blow. "Honda man" escapes, while his victim,
supposedly named Paul Bradley, is taken to the emergency center.
Bradley's "savior" is Martin Canning and his spur-of-the-moment
decision to intervene is uncharacteristic. Martin is a reclusive writer of
pseudonymous cozy mysteries set in the 1940s and featuring a plucky heroine. He
can't escape a myth entrenched in his official biography that says he was once
in a monastery—and his monastic lifestyle does little to support his case.
Martin feels obligated to look after Bradley, and for his efforts he is
robbed. Then his office is burglarized, though the only thing taken is the last
remaining backup of the novel that was on his laptop. Then the has-been stand-up
comic who ingratiated himself into Martin's home for the duration of the
Festival is murdered, probably in a case of mistaken identity.
Also at the scene of the accident is Jackson Brodie, hero of Case
Histories. Jackson, who retired after inheriting millions and moving to
France, is in Edinburgh with his girlfriend, Julia, an actress performing in one
of the Fringe Festival's fringier plays. Jackson saw the Honda's license plates,
but elects not to get involved in the drama. Someone else surely recorded that
information, he rationalizes.
Jackson later encounters "Honda man" in a back alley after
attending the murdered comic's last gig and is badly beaten by the man, but is
arrested when the police assume Jackson was the instigator. Rather than protest
his innocence, he pleads guilty to the assault and pays his fine.
He isn't a detective any more, but he can't restrain himself from plunging
into the case, much as he plunged into the cold waters to try to recover the
body of a dead girl he stumbles upon while killing time during Julia's
Louise Monroe, the new police inspector who is called out when Jackson
reports finding the body, is also connected to the accident. Her juvenile
delinquent son was at the scene—between bouts of shoplifting—and she lives in an
upscale estate built by the husband of another woman who was there. She is
dubious of Jackson's story, and not altogether receptive toward his unsolicited
advice. However, the two find themselves drawn to each other.
Within a few chapters, Atkinson draws deft character studies of the other
witnesses, all of whom have secrets unrelated to the road rage incident. Most
are loners. Broken—or breaking—relationships abound. Even parental relationships
are fractured. The characters mesh together like teeth on gears, each oblivious
to his or her part in the much larger machine—until Jackson starts to put the
Atkinson's primary metaphor is matryoshkas, the wooden Russian dolls that
nestle inside each other, like the ones Martin purchased while on a fateful trip
to St. Petersburg. Thinking about abandoning his fey heroine, he wishes he could
write a novel designed to mimic the matryoshkas.
Russians—including the woman Martin encountered during his trip, the body
Jackson discovered, the women employed by the service who clean Martin's lavish
home, and the beautiful and mysterious Tatiana, who knows more than anyone else
in the book—feature prominently in a subplot that may in fact be the main plot.
The man at the heart of the story, the central cog, never appears onstage—a
corrupt property developer who's in a coma after suffering a heart attack while
cheating on his wife. His picture is revealed when all the parts of the puzzle
Despite the book's title, there are actually several good turns to the tale.
The book shifts points of view, with chapters often repeating the final bit of
dialog from the previous scene, but shown from another character's perspective.
There are crimes aplenty, but getting to the bottom of the secrets each man and
woman is hiding seems more important to Atkinson than solving the various
Still, she does a deft job of planting all the elements required to motivate
the book's climactic scene. When all of the principles are reunited, it feels a
little like a French farce, with people abandoning the scene of the crime with
alacrity. Jackson is once again caught red-handed for something he didn't do,
but all's well that ends well and the hero drives off into the sunset, hopefully
to return again another day.
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