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A tension to detail

One Good Turn A Novel Kate Atkinson Little, Brown: 418 pp., $24.99

October 08, 2006|Jane Smiley | Jane Smiley's most recent book is "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel." Her new novel will appear in February.

THE muse of Kate Atkinson's first novel, "Behind the Scenes at the Museum," was Laurence Sterne, and appropriately so -- the 1995 Whitbread Prize winner was a family saga, set in Yorkshire, a dour and funny counter-history of Britain in the 20th century. Not for Atkinson the stirring heroism of the hard-pressed Brits of World War II, rejecting fear itself, but rather a colder toughness in which mothers are terrifying, young men hapless and unlucky while not being brave and two generations are blighted by the sheer bad luck of being born in time for first one war and then another. When I read "Behind the Scenes at the Museum," I found it strangely thrilling, because while Atkinson's subject matter was difficult, her style was lively -- not only witty but also smart, eclectic and generous. She could claim descent from Sterne, but as a woman at the end of the 20th century, she had a right to a harsher, more jaded vision.

In 2004, after several other novels and a book of stories, Atkinson produced the bestseller "Case Histories," a mystery again set in the north of England, and again the saga of a family that is way beyond dysfunctional and well into the realm of psychopathological. Her detective hero, Jackson Brodie, manages not only to solve a crime and disentangle a previous disappearance, but also to supply the novel with the closest thing possible to a happy ending -- he inherits some money and takes up with one of the family's remaining daughters, an actress named Julia.

By the beginning of Atkinson's new novel, "One Good Turn," though, Jackson has discovered that his inheritance is not the pleasure he had hoped and that his relationship with Julia is, if not comfortless, then at least directionless. The two find themselves in Scotland, where Julia is acting in an experimental play at the Edinburgh International Festival and Jackson is at loose ends. But the book doesn't start with Jackson. It opens with an irritable and disoriented driver fighting traffic in a maze of one-way streets. He stops short and is bumped from behind. When he gets out of his car, his ill temper is more than matched by that of the man who rear-ended him, who attacks with a baseball bat and beats him unconsciousness.

Ranged around this incident are the witnesses, all of whom seem at first to have no relationship to one another. The most material of these is a diminutive and retiring writer of old-fashioned, Agatha Christie-like whodunits named Martin Canning, who lives in Edinburgh and manages, by throwing his briefcase (and laptop), to prevent the driver from being killed. Martin and this mysterious victim are taken to the hospital, where Martin finds himself in a semi-nurturing relationship with the unconscious stranger, mostly because he doesn't have the courage to resist the assumptions and instructions of hospital personnel. Jackson is also one of the chance witnesses, the only one who gets the license number of the assailant before he speeds away. Sure enough, he is reluctantly drawn into the mystery, and subsequently finds himself in a seemingly unrelated mystery of his own.

But of course it is not unrelated, because "One Good Turn" has a plot and a genealogy. Atkinson's form is similar to that of Wilkie Collins' "The Woman in White" -- if not the earliest example of the mystery genre in British literature, then one of them. Her narrative shifts from point of view to point of view, and every character brings his or her own insights to the developing plot. The result is a richness of texture well suited to a writer of Atkinson's gifts. Such a structure carries a promise that each character will express his or her perspective in a manner refreshingly different from the others, but that in the end their connections will be clear and several mysteries will be solved. These include who did it and why did he do it, but also something more: the larger links of the plot, which may indeed be a conspiracy, and the more tenuous connections between characters, which may or may not become relationships.

Atkinson is especially good at the first of these requirements. Her evocations of the people here -- a wealthy middle-aged woman, a 15-year-old boy, a female police inspector -- are neat and insightful, and serve to draw us into their lives while prolonging and twisting the mystery that brings them together. Especially entertaining is Atkinson's portrait of Gloria, the somewhat overlooked wife of a local Edinburgh developer. Faithful to her husband and to her lifelong duties as homemaker and mother, Gloria is beginning to realize that perhaps she has been had. She is not, however, without inner resources. As in "Case Histories," Atkinson is adept at dealing out surprises, especially those that turn up just as the reader is thinking she has uncovered everything.

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