By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In 2005, Stephen King declared Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories“not just the best novel I’ve read this year, but the best mystery of the decade.” Atkinson’s first attempt at a detective story, it was a big departure from the novels the York-born author had made her name with: the 1995 Whitbread-prizewinning Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird, all postmodern fiction densely packed with witty observations, all manner of references from classical to pop, shifts in time and unexpected detours into magic realism. With her latest novel, One Good Turn, it becomes easier to see why Atkinson has embraced the mystery genre. In it, she pairs up two of her Case Histories protagonists — a police officer turned private eye and a second-rate actress — and sends them off to the annual arts festival in Edinburgh (where Atkinson lives). She uses her sizable skill to weave together a community of characters and multiple storylines, ultimately linking the couple to a 60-something housewife, a bashful writer of detective novels, a hack standup comic, a couple of hustling Russian girls, a bat-wielding thug and a hit man. In a recent coversation with the L.A. Weekly from her home, Atkinson presented, in a soft, tinkly British accent, a theory as to why Scotland has produced such great writers. “I think it’s boredom, really — isn’t that terrible? Right now, I’m looking out the window and it’s just pouring with rain. What else do you do if you’re inside?”
L.A. WEEKLY:Were you always interested in the mystery form?
KATE ATKINSON: I think we’re all drawn to that kind of a book. It’s the unfolding, isn’t it? So the idea of having a mystery at the heart of a book has always been very appealing to me. Now everyone asks, “You’ve turned to the crime genre,” and I kind of go along with it, and say, “Yes, sure . . .” But to me, I still have all the constituents that I had in my previous novels — the characters, the plot and the story. I don’t feel like I’m writing anything different. It’s disingenuous, but that’s how it feels.
In One Good Turn?, the body count doesn’t start until page 96, when private detective Jackson Brodie discovers the corpse of a beautiful young girl. Was it part of your plan to carefully set the stage before the killing spree commences?
It was never going to be a book that was littered with bodies. [Discovering a dead girl] was more because Jackson was needing something to do. He had been very inert up until that. When I was doing the body count again, I thought, “Actually, there’s a lot more than I ever intended . . .” They kind of stacked up.
From your experience, how do hardcore-crime fiction writers treat those who don’t play by the genre rule book?
They’re polite to me. [Laughs.] They don’t say to me, “This isn’t a proper crime book,” nobody actually says that out loud. Crime writers are always telling me how incredibly friendly they are. So I must presume this is true. But I do get the feeling that I’m regarded as an interloper in someone else’s territory.
How much planning goes into your interlocking storylines?
I never plot or diagram anything and I never lose track. It’s different from a reader’s point of view than from a writer’s point of view. You write one character and stop them at a certain point so you know they’re in the same time frame, staying very aware of what day it is and what point in the day. That way, I kind of naturally track them all. They all have to be up in the air at the same time.
Or passed out on a hotel-room floor, as one character ends up after being slipped a Mickey of pills, vodka and something calledIrn-Bru. . .
That is the most disgusting soft drink you ever tasted in your life. I shouldn’t say that. It’s popular. It’s orange and they advertise it as “Made from girders.” It looks like rust. There’s a lot of things in the Scottish cuisine that you should give a very wide berth. Like Scotch pies. God knows what’s in them. The scrapings of the abattoir floor. Not good.
One of the funniest characters inOne Good Turnis Martin Canning, a timid bachelor who pens best-selling, almost crazily jolly mysteries set in 1940s England. Was it enjoyable to come up with his substandard prose?
I did actually enjoy the writing part, but I don’t think of him like that. I think Martin’s become the worst kind of genre writer, but he’s been pushed into it. He has a better book in him. There’s a part of me that wants to actually write one of Martin’s books. It could be in a new edition with the Martin Canning book collapsed inside.
You’ve written plays, TV scripts, short stories, novels. Where do you get all the energy?