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by Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown, October 2006
432 pages
ISBN: 0316154849

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Kate Atkinson's Whitbread award-winning novel BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM showed a fascination with the abyss between pretence and reality; the secrets that the most ordinary people try to keep in the interests of self-preservation.

So it isn't surprising that the 'literary' novelist Atkinson has since turned her skills to crime fiction. Now, she follows up the critically acclaimed CASE HISTORIES with ONE GOOD TURN, a mystery set in a place and time where pretending is expected: the annual Edinburgh Fringe festival.

On Edinburgh's Royal Mile, introverted crime novelist Martin, who goes by the pseudonym Alex Blake is letting abysmal stand-up comic Richard Moat crash at his place when sees a road rage incident turn nearly deadly and intervenes. But it's difficult to be a hero, and the man he saves, who goes by the name of Paul Bradley, is extremely ungrateful to this good Samaritan.

When Martin follows 'Bradley' to his hotel because someone should be watching him, he discovers that 'Bradley' has a gun -- and, later, that Moat has been murdered and mistaken for Martin himself.

Meanwhile, retired ex-cop Jackson Brodie, the hero of CASE HISTORIES, is back, reluctantly attending the Fringe with his annoying wannabe-actress girlfriend Julia. He discovers the body of a young Russian cleaning woman in the water, gets implicated in the death of a thug's pet dog, and quickly finds himself entangled in a web of murder, betrayal, prostitution and business crime. It also entangles 'Bradley' -- and Martin, who needs to confront the dreadful reason why he runs from his own life and own name.

As the novel progresses, Atkinson introduces a quirky ensemble cast, none of whom are what they pretend to be. As Brodie, the one honest man of the tale, finds his credibility and even his freedom threatened, Martin learns that, as a writer and a human being, it's better to be honest -- even with yourself.

Atkinson's greatest strength is characterisation, and the characters of ONE GOOD TURN are very memorable. She's also fascinated by language; by the secrets that word choice reveals and conceals. "Jackson's vocabulary seemed to be full of other people's words these days, French people's mainly as that was now his 'place of domicile,' which was a different thing from 'home.'"

I felt a little miffed by the back-cover blurb claiming that Atkinson "continues to blur the boundaries that divide literary and crime fiction." I hadn't known there were any. Which is Edgar Allan Poe's THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE -- literary or crime?

Good writing is simply good writing, regardless of drama, and when it gets old enough or racks up enough awards or postgraduate thesis abstracts, people start to consider it 'literary'.

Atkinson is simply a very good writer, who has chosen crime fiction as the generic framework for her snappy dialogue, witty insights, and complex characterisation. Simplistic labels, as she suggests in ONE GOOD TURN, are never the whole truth.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, September 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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