Friday, August 5, 2011

Well-deserving

Six years ago, I listened to a book by Kate Atkinson (undoubtedly I read a review ... but did I place a hold or find it on the shelf?) called Case Histories. I loved it, loved its private eye, and vowed to read more when subsequent installments appeared. I'm three books behind ... well, now I'm only two books behind. But, like the cardholders at my library who have suddenly created a queue for Kate Atkinson's books (it's so nice to know I'm not alone in my obsessions), an impending television version is on its way (courtesy of Masterpiece [I still call it] Theatre) so I've got to read them first. Fortunately, not a difficult assignment. One Good Turn is sheer fun.

I can't always say with confidence (since I've invariably read the one[s] before) that you don't have to start at the beginning, but in this case I can. I don't remember much from six years ago -- except a fondness for Jackson Brodie -- and I did just fine, thanks. Jackson used to be a copper (both military and civilian), then a PI, and now he's retired to a farmhouse in the south of France thanks to an generous inheritance from a grateful client. He's got a steady girlfriend and he finds himself at somewhat loose ends in Edinburgh because actress/girlfriend Julia is rehearsing and will be performing in a really bad play, "Looking for the Equator in Greenland," during the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival (which starts today!).

He witnesses an incident of road rage -- Peugeot Man suddenly stops his car for an absent-minded tourist/pedestrian and is rear-ended by Honda Man, who leaps out of his car swinging a baseball bat and proceeds to smash all the Peugeot's windows out before turning his weapon on Peugeot Man. Like many of the other witnesses, Jackson isn't certain that this isn't street theatre. But as he's deciding whether or not to step in, another observer flings his computer bag at Honda Man who subsequently gets back into his car and roars away.

Then Atkinson begins working her magic. We get introduced to four of the witnesses: Gloria, a frumpy, middle-aged woman who is not as she appears; the bag-thrower, Martin, a milquetoast cozy mystery author who would very much like to be not as he appears; two teenagers with petty crime on their minds; and Jackson, who is struggling with the aimless direction his life is taking. Their stories expand and spin out. And yes, because this is fiction, the seemingly disparate plots and lives begin to connect and coincide. I love this in a novel; I love the anticipation and the guesses you make, and then the aha! of seeing one more piece click into place. The pieces involve money laundering, women brought from Eastern Europe for purposes of prostitution, shoddy real estate developers, murder-for-hire, and just plain murder. It's the kind of crime fiction where the "whodunnit" is really beside the point, it's the how and the why that are interesting.

On top of this, Atkinson is terrifically funny. She brings her wit and her satirical eye to bear on pretentious actors, aggressive comics, mystery novelists and publishers of all sorts (presumably including herself), slightly corrupt coppers, animal lovers, McMansions and their owners, and more. There were times I was laughing aloud while listening. I'm amazed at how well she keeps the balls in the air, the story moving along and still making sense. I had a few questions about some minor details at the end (what was with the Matryoshka dolls? [I mean literally, I get the metaphor]), but on the whole I finished feeling satisfied. And ready to dive into the third book, but I'm saving that for vacation (in print).

Steven Crossley narrates the novel. He's got a lot of audiobook experience, but this was the first time I'd heard him. I thought he really took command of this complex story and its many characters. Jackson has a quiet strength, and a very pleasant gravelly baritone. Martin, the novelist, always has an edge of panic in his voice, yet when he's immersed in his active fantasy life he's calmer and more authoritative. Crossley's characterizations of the novel's women run the gamut -- some (notably Julia) were rather painfully femmy, while others -- a Russian immigrant call girl and a smart Scottish policewoman -- are much more authentic sounding.

And the Russian and Scottish reminds me that there are many opportunities for different accents (originating from region, country or social class) in this novel, which Crossley handles superbly. I even heard variations within the Scots which is pretty amazing. Atkinson's humor is always present in Crossley's delivery, as well; it's never obviously emphasized. Wisely, the narrator just lets the author's words speak for themselves.

The British version of this novel is subtitled "A Jolly Murder Mystery," which was left off the U.S. version. Martin began writing his bloodless, extremely conventional, mystery series featuring the perennially perky sleuth Nina Riley at the request of his publisher for a "jolly murder mystery." Nostalgia sells, she tells him. Is the book's U.S. publisher afraid we won't get the joke? Or heavens, the irony? I wish they wouldn't tamper with books that come from across the pond.

[The photograph of a street performer at the Fringe Festival was taken by snappybex and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
Narrated by Steven Crossley
BBC Audiobooks America (now AudioGO), 2006. 14:12

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