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One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

A Bunch of Lefts Do Make a Right

Why does Agatha Christie continue to sell? In fact, why do her books continue to be translated into languages in some countries at a rate that outpaces translation of the Bible? It stands to reason that her stories satisfy not because everyone has a secret affection for Belgian detectives mistaken for French ones or that British women with surnames like Marple really rock. The stories satisfy because the characters in her books always outshine the detectives in ways that are more believable than characters we meet on TV today.

In one Christie novel, the detective attributes the crime to all twelve of the principal characters. They are seemingly strangers to one another but the detective surmises that there is a place that all these people from various nationalities and stations would meet: “in America,” he says. As readers with hindsight, we ask ourselves, why didn’t I look deeper for ways these people connect?

Kate Atkinson is a student of the Christie form in its highest degree. Already a critics’ darling, (Stephen King called her book Case Histories the best book he had read in a decade.) Atkinson introduces us to a panoply of characters in Edinburgh with seemingly no connection to one another. During a fender bender, an irate driver begins a brutal attack on another driver. One man intervenes, another observes. In the course of the next 250 pages, we meet all the people most affected by the incident. It is a robust character study in that within these 250 pages, only one day passes. In fact, during the course of the book, only four days elapse.

With a minimal amount of backstory, Atkinson shows us who these people are, not by what they think, but what they do. One character, Martin Canning, is a writer of crime fiction. His heroine is a 1940s female detective who incites nostalgia in her readers and never gets into romantic sandtraps herself. Martin, who “hasn’t touched anyone for months”, lives in fantasy life where he concocts various fake wives and fake kids with names like Sonny and Melody. It is the accident that forces him to dwell outside this arena for the first time.

Another character, Gloria Hatter, the cuckolded wife of a real estate developer, shows her intrinsic being most when in touch with inanimate things: her feet on Berber carpet, her hands on red Oregon pine banister. We see how her husband has been replaced by these more solid versions of him that don’t talk back.

Jackson Brodie, our reluctant hero, is engrossed in an animate object, an actress named Julia. It is no surprise that this former police officer, and recent inheritor of millions, is the one who forges a connection between the traffic accident and attractive Russian women.

One Good Turn succeeds the way a Christie book succeeds. While most Scots would shudder at the comparison to anything British, they’ll just have to chase their whiskey down with an Irn-Bru soda and accept the compliment.

One Good Turn By Kate Atkinson
Little Brown and Company
October 11, 2006
Hardcover, $24.99
ISBN: 0-316-15484-0
418 pages