Kate Atkinson Returns with Thriller 'One Good Turn'

Kate Atkinson

hide captionKate Atkinson also wrote Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird.

Peter Ross

Scroll down to read an excerpt from One Good Turn.

It takes almost a hundred pages for the bodies to start piling up in Kate Atkinson's new murder mystery One Good Turn. That's not the way it's usually done, but then Atkinson is hardly your typical mystery writer.

She wasn't a mystery writer at all when her first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum won the prestigious Whitbread Prize. Four books later, Atkinson's first foray into thrillers Case Histories, earned Stephen King's extravagant praise.

It turned out that Atkinson, already a literary darling, can plot and twist and kill with the best of them. But it's the way she flouts murder mystery convention, with such wit and vigor and lovely irony, you're happy just to be along for the ride.

One Good Turn starts in Edinburg, when Martin Canning, a fussy and faint-hearted bachelor, comes to town for an annual arts festival. He's waiting in line when, almost by accident, he single-handedly stops an act of murderous road rage. Martin's a mystery writer, a good core character for a thriller. But this being Atkinson, he's a bit of a twit. Atkinson tells us:

The nearest Martin had been to a real crime scene previously had been on a Society of Authors trip around St. Leonard's Police Station. Apart from Martin, the group consisted entirely of women. 'You're our token man,' one of them said to him, and he sensed a certain disappointment in the polite laughter of the others, as if the least he could have done as their token man was be a little less like a woman.

Martin bumbles his way to and through the heart of the puzzle but comes nowhere near the solution. Along the way, Atkinson skewers the murder mystery genre, stocking her story with enough characters for an alphabetical series. There's a savvy ex-cop, a hard-boiled policeman, a sweet young thing, a femme fatale, some punky teenagers, even an innocent cat. But Atkinson's too smart to let this turn into a game of Clue. We're not going to find Professor Plum in the parlor with the candlestick.

Edinburg, Atkinson's adopted hometown and a city she clearly adores, gets some of the best lines in the book. Sure, we get Old World atmosphere — ancient houses and age-old cobblestone streets. But we also get the modern world, the one with cell-phone cameras and digital chips, text messages, memory sticks and ring tones.

With its sprawling cast and fast-paced plot, One Good Turn is a Rubik's Cube of a book. The more you twist and spin its elements, the more mixed up it gets. Then suddenly — CLICK — it comes together. Four hundred pages, gone in a flash. When a book is this good, you can't help thinking One Good Turn deserves… a sequel.

'One Good Turn' Excerpt

One Good Turn

The following excerpt is from One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson.

He was trying to drive and at the same time decipher his A-Z of Edinburgh to work out how to escape this hellish street, when someone stepped in front of the car. It was a type he loathed — a young, dark-haired guy with thick, black-framed spectacles, two days of stubble, and a fag hanging out of his mouth, there were hundreds of them in London, all trying to look like French existentialists from the sixties. He'd bet that not one of them had ever opened a book on philosophy. He'd read the lot — Plato, Kant, Hegel — even thought about getting a degree someday.

He braked hard and didn't hit the spectacles guy, just made him give a little jump, like a bullfighter avoiding the bull. The guy was furious, waving his fag around, shouting, raising a finger to him. Charmless, devoid of manners-were his parents proud of the job they'd done? He hated smoking, it was a disgusting habit, hated guys who gave you the finger and screamed, "Spin on it," saliva flying out of their filthy, nicotine-stained mouths.

He felt the bump, about the same force as hitting a badger or a fox on a dark night, except it came from behind, pushing him forward. It was just as well the spectacles guy had performed his little paso doble and gotten out of the way or he would have been pancaked. He looked in the rearview mirror. A blue Honda Civic, the driver climbing out — a big guy with slabs of weight-lifter muscle, gym-fit rather than survival-fit, he wouldn't have been able to last three months in the jungle or the desert the way that Ray could have. He wouldn't have lasted a day. He was wearing driving gloves, ugly black leather ones with knuckle holes. He had a dog in the back of the car, a beefy rottweiler, exactly the dog you would have guessed a guy like that would have. The man was a walking cliche. The dog was having a seizure in the back, spraying saliva all over the window, its claws scrabbling on the glass. The dog didn't worry him too much. He knew how to kill dogs.

Ray got out of the car and walked round to the back bumper to inspect the damage. The Honda driver started yelling at him, "You stupid f——— t—-, what did you think you were doing?" English. Ray tried to think of something to say that would be nonconfrontational, that would calm the guy down — you could see he was a pressure cooker waiting to blow, wanting to blow, bouncing on his feet like an out-of-condition heavyweight. Ray adopted a neutral stance, a neutral expression, but then he heard the crowd give a little collective "Aah" of horror and he registered the baseball bat that had suddenly appeared in the guy's hand out of nowhere and thought, S—-.

That was the last thought he had for several seconds. When he was able to think again he was sprawled on the street, holding the side of his head where the guy had cracked him. He heard the sound of broken glass, the bastard was putting in every window in his car now. He tried, unsuccessfully, to struggle to his feet but only managed to get to a kneeling position as if he were at prayer, and now the guy was advancing with the bat lifted, feeling the heft of it in his hand, ready to swing for a home run on his skull. Ray put an arm up to defend himself, made himself even more dizzy by doing that, and, sinking back onto the cobbles, thought, Jesus, is this it? He'd given up, he'd actually given up — something he'd never done before — when someone stepped out of the crowd, wielding something square and black that he threw at the Honda guy, clipping him on the shoulder and sending him reeling.

He blacked out again for a few seconds, and when he came to there were a couple of policewomen hunkered down beside him, one of them saying, "Just take it easy, sir," the other one on her radio calling for an ambulance. It was the first time in his life that he'd been glad to see the police.

Copyright © 2006 by Kate Atkinson

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