Novelist Kate Atkinson took up mystery-writing with her fourth book, 2004's Case Histories, and her approach to the genre has been far from conventional. In Case Histories and its semi-sequel One Good Turn, there are murders and clues and detectives, but Atkinson sometimes makes the nature of the crimes as much a mystery as who committed them. One Good Turn brings back Case Histories' detective Jackson Brodie, now retired and touring Edinburgh at theater-festival time with his actress girlfriend Julia (another holdover from the previous book). When, on the same day, he encounters a violent traffic accident and a floating corpse, he enters the orbit of a handful of people who have their own misdeeds to account for. While Brodie privately investigates the dead girl and her unexpected connection to the road-rage incident, the reader follows the tangled, sometimes tragic backstories of everyone involved.
Among those implicated: Gloria, the wife of a corrupt, dying real-estate magnate; Martin, a meek "cozy" crime novelist; Louise, an ambitious policewoman and disappointed single mother; Tatiana, a Russian house-cleaner and dominatrix; and Richard, a lame stand-up comic whose political material hasn't been fresh since Thatcher left office. Atkinson introduces them all in a flurry, then slows the pace down so she can fill readers in on the mistakes they've made and the people they've hurt, while making sure we still empathize.
In spite of the winding path One Good Turn takes, it's entertaining both as a murder mystery and as a sprawling multi-character study in the best post-Nashville tradition. (The story takes its structure from one of its central images: Russian nesting dolls.) And just as Case Histories doubled as a meditation on death and mourning, One Good Turn has a sub-theme that ties all its coincidences and misunderstandings together. The book opens with a man going incognito—a man who mostly disappears from the book until the end—and throughout, characters get overlooked or misidentified. It's all part of the grander mystery Atkinson's working to solve: the mystery of how we define ourselves, and whether we're capable of changing what people think we are.