One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson

Raving and ranting at a surreal Edinburgh show
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The Independent Culture

'One Good Turn' is something relatively rare in literary fiction, but familiar in crime: a sequel. Jackson Brodie, the ex-policeman hero of Kate Atkinson's Case Histories, inherited £2m from a grateful old lady and is now living in Edinburgh with his actress lover, Julia. Once again it's summer, and the Festival coincides with a case of road rage and a couple of murders.

As in the Taggart TV series (which, alongside Ian Rankin's Rebus novels, appears to have been a strong influence), everybody who appears in the narrative is connected to another character. Ray, attacked in the road rage incident, is a criminal of some kind, but it's not until the last page that you discover his link to Gloria, the deceived wife of a property developer. Martin saves Ray's life by throwing his laptop at the thug who is about to beat Ray up with a baseball bat; an asexual writer of detective fiction "depicting a kind of retro-utopian Britain that was rife with aristocrats and gamekeepers - although no one seemed to have sex", he then gets embroiled in real-life murder when his unpleasant house guest is murdered in vengeful reciprocation.

Meanwhile, Brodie discovers the corpse of an Eastern European girl in a lake. It bears a striking resemblance to the prostitute servicing Gloria's husband when he has a stroke. Brodie and Louise, a woman detective, discover a link to Favours, a cleaning agency that turns out to be one of many shady businesses owned by Gloria's husband. Fraud, lies, adultery and subsidence collide. Not for nothing are we reminded of the Robin Hood ring-tones on one of the victims' mobile...

Atkinson is a clever writer who has always enjoyed playing with genres and who is just a bit too influenced by Tristram Shandy. Her Whitbread-winning debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, used small items of lost property to piece together an entire family history - a striking and affecting technique subsequently adapted by Carol Cadwalladr's The Family Tree. From this to a full-blown detective novel is no great jump, though it is one that requires more dexterity than Emotionally Weird, Atkinson's car-crash of genres about a writing course in Dundee. Acerbic, eccentric and maddeningly perverse, she is a writer I always read with my heart in my mouth, as if watching a trapeze artist perform a high-wire act between cockiness and courage.

Here, as in Case Histories, she is splendid at the stuff of people's lives: the mess of middle-aged marriages, the selflessness of single parenthood, the loneliness of life-long celibacy and the cruelty that allows people to drop taped budgies from windows or to drown kittens. There are gorgeously comic characters such as voluptuous Julia, playing Nell Gwyn "for a pittance and the oranges", and a Russian prostitute as ridiculously ruthless as any in Bond.

The narrative technique shuttles between characters' thoughts and perceptions, creating little mysteries that hook the reader into staying with her throughout cascades of apparently unconnected detail. Her observations about Edinburgh are easily as funny as Alexander McCall Smith's, though less benign. Brodie (the opposite of Spark's heroine) is a "philistine" who rejects Impressionism and religious painting in favour of Vermeer, "because life wasn't about legions of Madonnas and waterlilies, it was about the commonplace of details - the woman pouring milk from a jug, the boy sitting at the kitchen table eating a chicken pie." This is exactly what Atkinson herself excels in.

Yet at cross-purposes to this is Martin: less of a character than a stooge for witticisms about critics and fans. You wonder what is bugging Atkinson about her profession - especially given her critical and commercial success in it. Novels about novelists are almost always a mistake, and this one has too many rants about agents and publishers to avoid the impression of self-indulgence wantonly smashing up the careful realism of the rest. Unlike its dark and dazzling predecessor, One Good Turn is neither a good literary novel nor a satisfying detective story, though it had the potential to have been both.

Amanda Craig's novel 'Love in Idleness' is published by Abacus

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