tripping the life unbalanced

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Thinking Crime: Kate Atkinson's One Good Turn

I'm about to divulge a great secret of mine. Not many people know this (or perhaps really care to know this), and I've tried to keep it hidden for some time. But now I feel it must come out. It's time.


I sometimes read crime fiction.


Ok, ok. Not only do I sometimes read it, I also sometimes truly love it. Especially good crime novels, the ones that are more psychologically thrilling with complicated characters than the ones featuring the obvious and predictable killers. Most of the crime fiction I like happens to be written by women, who happen to write some very excellent, not exactly likeable and usually arrogant, female characters. For example, I'm a fan of Minette Walters and Denise Mina and Lynda Laplante (although with the latter I actually prefer her television scripts to her novels). Earlier this year, I stumbled upon another female crime writer who was newish to the genre. This writer was not exactly being branded as a crime writer but rather as a fiction novelist. A fine line, at times, in the press machine. It was Kate Atkinson, and the book was Case Histories. Although the novel did feature a murder and a search for a killer, it was a much bigger story about family dysfunction and intricate character studies. I was hooked from the first chapter.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Atkinson's follow-up novel - One Good Turn - and have felt the same excitement as I did with Case Histories. While I do admit to loving certain crime novels, I find so many of them weak in character and bankrupt of actual story. Blah blah blah here's a murder, blah blah blah there' s a romance, and blah blah blah here's the murder resolved. It can be so unsatisfying. In Atkinson's novels, however, it's all about the characters and their stories. She uses a multitude of characters' points of view to tell the story, and as it unravels you find yourself deeper and deeper in the psychology of the plot. The murder is just a backdrop, another character almost. It is the drama that surrounds the murder - with all of its finger-pointing at different characters' weaknesses and vulnerabilities that drives this novel.

It seems to be unsavoury in some literary circles to give accolades to crime fiction. Like chicklit, it can be banished to the dusty shelf of all books not worthy of a gold sticker from the likes of Pulitzer or Orange. But I think a novel like ONE GOOD TURN is difficult for those critics, as it straddles the camps of both crime novel and literary fiction. And any author who can turn a pigeon-holed genre on its head has my respect.

See for yourself and let me know what you think.


  • Ooh, I love Kate Atkinson. I can't wait to read her new book. I don't think Case Histories even counts as crime fiction, or if it does, only barely. Not that there's anything WRONG with crime fiction, of course, it's just that, as you said, Case Histories had so many other things at play.

    By Blogger Suzanne, at 8:25 a.m.  

  • I read anything...and I have really enjoyed crime fiction in the past. I read all of Agatha Christie as a young teen (my Mother loved them).

    By Blogger crazymumma, at 9:53 a.m.  

  • Funny, Case Histories was one of the two books that inspired me to create my 10-pages-in book reviews, because I was so indifferent to it at the beginning I almost didn't finish reading it, and yet by the end I literally couldn't put it down. (So many hours of sleep lost to good books...)

    Thanks for the tip on this one! I'm about to need something new to read - your timing is perfect.

    By Blogger DaniGirl, at 11:30 a.m.  

  • I like Minette Walters too and was looking for a new author (new to me!). I feel a bit embarrassed at times for liking crime fiction (in the midst of the latest Elizabeth George right now) but so be it. I like what I like - the "real" stuff ("good" literature) and the crime fiction.

    By Blogger Mamalooper, at 12:51 p.m.  

  • Your wussy secret is not that you read crime fiction - it's that you read modern girly crime fiction. Please feel free to stop by and borrow a Chandler or a Hammet from our house sometime, and see that there is no shame in crime fiction -- only a noirish romance.

    By Blogger Marla, at 2:42 p.m.  

  • Thanks for the tip re: Kate Atkinson's books. They are now on my "To Read" list. Interspersed with all the so-called "good" books I read, I too love crime fiction and will even read true crime books. (Can't watch scary movies but I can read scary books.)

    Reading should always be a pleasure and it doesn't matter what genre you read as long as you enjoy the book.

    By Blogger Beth, at 10:31 a.m.  

  • Thanks, I've been looking for something different for the upcoming holidays.

    I used to read a lot of crime fiction--Patricia Cornwall for one.

    By Blogger metro mama, at 10:32 p.m.  

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