More the mystery

Kate Atkinson’s fear of genre
By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  December 5, 2006

HERMAPHRODITE? Atkinson tries for more than a mystery but winds up with more and less.
What’s the big deal about Kate Atkinson? If you read the rapturous reviews of her previous novel, Case Histories, you’d conclude she had written an engrossing mystery that was, you know, more than just a mystery. Here’s a sampling: “makes most murder-mystery page turners feel as lifeless as the corpses they’re strewn with”; “winds up having more depth and vividness than ordinary thrillers”; and, my favorite, “The mysteries are as satisfying as anything dreamed up by Raymond Chandler, but the beauty of the novel lies in its spot-on characterizations, pitch-perfect observations of contemporary culture, and a sharp, wisecracking narrative voice.” The joke about that blurb is that any mystery reader could, in about a minute, think of 12 mysteries that provide every one of those elements.

So it seems clear that Atkinson’s appeal lies in the conviction that she — you should pardon the expression — “transcends the genre.” Implying that the genre isn’t much good to begin with.

One Good Turn isn’t — thank God — a “literary thriller,” one of those things that bears as much relation to the pleasure of reading thrillers as lighting up a Carlton does to smoking. It is a pretty good mystery. It keeps you wanting to find out what’s going to happen for its 400-plus pages — not an inconsiderable feat at a time when much literary fiction can’t interest you in what’s going to happen at the end of the paragraph, if anything does.

But it would have been better if Atkinson had stuck closer to the strictures of genre writing or else abandoned any impulse to make the novel a mystery and concentrated on her quirky observations of the lives of its various characters. She employs the same device you can find in the novels of Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, and other thriller writers, cutting back and forth among separate characters who gradually come together. (The technique is almost impossible for mystery writers who work in the first person if the narrator is the sleuth who’s leading us through the case.)

The novel begins with a fender-bender outside a line of theatergoers at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival. The slammer, a hulking brute, descends upon the slammee with a baseball bat but is kept from killing the man by the hurling of a laptop that hits him square in the chest. The hurler is a mystery writer. (His specialty is what the mystery trade refers to as “cozies.”) Among the other witnesses: the wife of a philandering real-estate tycoon whose dirty business dealings are unraveling under investigation, and the book’s main character, an ex-cop turned recent millionaire who can’t quite get used to the life of leisure he’s now able to lead. There’s also the cop who investigates the accident and attack, an abrasive washed-up comic who’s trying to make a comeback, and the ex-cop’s pretentious actress girlfriend.

Eventually, these characters come, more or less, together. And what keeps you turning the pages is to see just how. But there’s a difference between reading because you’re compelled to and reading out of mere curiosity, out of a nagging suspicion that the time you’re investing has to lead somewhere. Atkinson’s solution is clever, but you have to make your way through a fair amount of woolgathering to get to it. And though her prose can be sharply observed, it never attains the precise and pitiless vision that makes Ruth Rendell the English language’s most valuable literary moralist. One Good Turn is an entertaining hermaphrodite of a novel — to borrow an old definition of that species: it’s a little too much of each and not enough of either.

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