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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 never-ending rehearsals.

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 pieces together.

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 are assembled.

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 mysteries.

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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