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A Jolly Murder Mystery


Kate Atkinson, the author of my favorite novel of 2004, Case Histories, has produced a new novel, One Good Turn. It’s a sequel of sorts, not quite as good as its predecessor – which Stephen King called “the best mystery of the decade” – yet still an extremely enjoyable read.

Sequel may not be the correct term: both books are ensemble affairs with several important characters and two of these characters have returned in One Good Turn. The two novels are literary mysteries, with Atkinson using a lighter touch in the second but the structure of both novels is similar. Case Histories is much more tender, even heart-breaking – a three-year-old child goes missing, a beloved daughter is killed in her father’s presence. The violence and threat of violence in One Good Turn is more present yet the pull on our emotions is less powerful in the new novel, probably because much of the pain is visited on unsympathetic characters.

Case Histories:

A Novel

Not that sympathetic characters don’t get hurt as well: Jackson Brodie, the private investigator in Case Histories, now retired, gets more than a little banged up by a thug, and we are led to believe that a drowned girl he finds, then loses to the tides, did not deserve her early demise. The emotional pain is liberally distributed among the many characters as well. Still, there is more humor in this story than in its predecessor; sometimes the human condition makes you laugh, sometimes it makes you cry.

One Good Turn is set in Edinburgh during the Festival Fringe, reputedly the largest arts festival in the world. Jackson is there with his bohemian girlfriend Julia, whose sister’s death is one of the mysteries powering Case Histories. They are not exactly a matched pair: Jackson worries about other people and, even when he has decided not to, winds up helping them; Julia worries more about herself and is a less-developed character.

One Good Turn

A minor case of urban road rage sets the story in motion. Seemingly inoffensive “Paul Bradley” (an alias, we learn immediately) is involved in a minor fender-bender with a cartoonishly large and violent Honda driver…who happens to have a baseball bat at hand. The encounter puts Paul in the emergency room with a concussion. If not for the intervention of Martin Canning, a bystander who throws his computer laptop at Honda Man, Paul would likely have wound up in the morgue.

Martin’s boldness surprises even himself. He is a moderately successful writer of mysteries starring a Nancy Drew-like character – we are treated to some unintentionally hilarious passages from his work – who suffers from the psychological scars of a bullying father as well as the emotional damage of a holiday encounter with a Russian woman, the details of which we do not learn until late in the novel.

This personal baggage, and Martin’s fundamental decency, opens him to exploitation and ill-treatment by others, including Richard Mott, a comedian in town for the Fringe, whose act has long passed its sell-by date. Those aren’t the only people involved in this tale: Gloria Hatter, who is waiting with a friend to enter a nearby Fringe show when the Honda Man and Paul encounter draws a crowd also has a major role.

Jackson also happens to witness the road rage incident – Julia’s rehearsal is nearby – and, like a good ex-policeman, both offers Martin some support until the authorities take charge and gets Honda Man’s license plate number. That license number later helps salvage his credibility with Detective Inspector Louise Monroe, the officer who catches another case when Jackson subsequently says he tried to pull a dead woman out of the water but has no witnesses to the event. Where their crime-based relationship might lead is just one of the many incidental mysteries that keep the story going.

As should be obvious by now, Atkinson tosses a lot of balls in the air. But she is an expert juggler and an extremely deft writer. I’ve not even mentioned the women who work for the service that cleans Martin’s and Gloria’s houses and which may have been the employer of the dead girl Jackson finds in the water.

One of the interesting differences between these two Jackson Brodie murder mysteries is that much of the brilliance in the first was in getting to the end – solving the mystery felt almost anti-climatic – whereas One Good Turn is a page-turner to the very end. Several of the multiple mysteries are not resolved until the last pages and, even then, involve twists that I had not anticipated.

Atkinson has said she wanted to title the second book, Jolly Murder Mystery, and was not delighted by the publisher’s pressure to call it One Good Turn. The publishers were correct: Jolly Murder Mystery is a horrible title for a literary mystery – although I would have read the follow-on to Case Histories if the title had been The Dubuque Yellow Pages – but it is descriptively apt. The novel is packed with mysteries, murders, and really is jolly good fun.

Share  Posted by mzeringue at 9:14 AM | Permalink

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