Kate Atkinson One Good Turn
A Jolly Murder Mystery
Black Swan 2007 (2006)
Kate Atkinson’s novel reminds me of the customary list, the dramatis personae, that appeared in printed copies of plays from the Elizabethan period onward announcing the characters one would expect to strut their stuff on the stage.
SO-AND-SO, King of Such-and-Such
THINGUMAJIG, heir to the throne of Such-and-Such
FLIBBERTIGIBBET, Queen of Somewhere Else
Attendants, courtiers, peasants etc.
For practical purposes — read-throughs, programme notes, students — that’s all very helpful, but from a dramatic point of view it makes little sense: an audience would want the characters, like the play’s narrative, to unfold before their very eyes, and a bald roster of who appears doesn’t normally tell you an awful lot.
So, what if I were to present the principal players in One Good Turn in a similar manner — would that be any different?
Paul Bradley, a road rage victim
Terence Smith, Graham Hatter’s assistant
Martin Canning, a crime writer
Gloria Hatter, wife to Graham Hatter
Graham Hatter, a property developer
Jackson Brodie, a retired private detective
Julia, an actor
Archie and Hamish, schoolboys
Richard Moat, stand-up comic
Tatiana, a call girl
Louise Munroe, a detective inspector
Assistants, actors, passers-by etc.
And that would still tell us very little. But what Kate Atkinson does is in successive chapters is to introduce each protagonist to us from their own points of view, almost as if they had each stepped out onto a virtual stage. The third person narrative manages to recreate each individual’s internal soliloquys, which makes it easy for us to empathise with aspects of each person’s character — in particular, Martin the writer’s self doubts, Gloria the long-suffering wife’s dissatisfaction, the bemusement of Jackson (hero of the author’s previously published Case Histories) and career police officer Louise’s isolation — as they are faced with the unfolding drama.
And drama it is. It is August, the period of summer madness that is the Edinburgh Festival in the early noughties. In the course of four days — Tuesday to Friday — a young woman is drowned, a driver is the victim of road rage, a man is rushed to ICU after a session with a call girl, a stand-up dies in more ways than one, a man is shot, and a dog and a cat face death. All this against a background of plays, book readings, the usual Fringe street entertainment and a circus — all with their own incidental narratives: for example, Jackson’s girlfriend Julia is in a play called Looking for the Equator in Greenland and Martin writes period crime novels set in an early 20th-century Scotland.
It’s tempting to complete the title A Good Turn with ‘Deserves Another’. It’s true that justice of a sort is done in most cases, though rarely is it ever done in an orthodox way, but we do feel that everyone gets their just deserts. I think there is also a performance aspect to the title, as ‘turn’ can also mean a variety show act, and of course a visiting Russian circus features in the action, adding to a growing sense of surrealism.
The surrealism is disconcerting at first, especially as coincidence piles on coincidence — at one point Jackson Brodie shakes his head in disbelief at resulting synchronicities — but Atkinson’s skill is in making us accept them because the writing, characterisation and plotting are all so compelling. One aspect of the surrealism is the unacknowledged parallel with the Punch & Judy puppet show. The interactions frequently recall incidents in the seaside entertainment: a Mr Punch-like character who bludgeons people (“That’s the way to do it!”), a long-suffering wife, a baby whose existence is threatened, a police officer, an executioner (handgun rather than hangman’s rope), a dog Toby substitute, a clown. The only things missing are the sausages and the crocodile.
So, how to regard this novel? The clue is in its subtitle. It’s jolly, full of fun and humorous touches, despite the gruesomeness. It includes murder most foul, most definitely. And mystery — Atkinson keeps us guessing right the way to the end, even including the envoi, with its twist in the tale just after the main revelations are made. Underlying all is that strong sense of justice that convinces us matches the author’s convictions, the passionate dislike of sociopathic behaviours and the antisocial attitudes of grasping entrepreneurs.
But, above all, I found this an enjoyable read, the work of an accomplished writer. That’s the way to do it!