MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
I'm Alex Chadwick.
We drive in Los Angeles all the time, so we're kind of used to road rage. But a homicidal act of car madness on the streets of Edinburgh, Scotland sounds out of place. Such an incidence, though, is at the center of a new whodunit from British author Kate Atkinson.
Here's DAY TO DAY critic Veronique De Turenne.
VERONIQUE DE TURENNE: It takes almost 100 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, came “Case Histories,” her first foray into thrillers, which 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 to just be along for the ride.
“One Good Turn” starts in Edinburgh, 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 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 author's trip around St. Leonards 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 of done as their token man was be a little less like a woman.
Atkinson skewers the murder-mystery genre, stalking her story with enough characters for an alphabetical series. There's a savvy ex-cop, a sweet, young thing, a femme fatal, some punky teenagers even an innocent cat. But, Atkinson is to smart to let this turn into a game of Clue. We're not going to find Professor Plum in the parlor with the candlestick.
Edinburgh, 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 text messages, memory sticks and ring tones.
With its sprawling cast and fast-paced plot, “One Good Turn” is 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. When a book is this good, you can't help thinking “One Good Turn” deserves a sequel.
CHADWICK: Veronique De Turenne is a writer living here in Los Angeles. You can read an excerpt from Kate Atkinson's “One Good Turn” at out Web site npr.org.