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 called Irn-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 in One Good Turn is 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?
I’m 54. I’ve done lovers, husbands, children; I’m on to grandchildren and living on my own. I don’t need to go through all that life stuff so much. There’s a lot of messy stuff that’s out of the way now.
I read that you started writing fiction in the ’80s after you flunked the oral exams for your doctorate at the University of Dundee.
It was a very political thing that happened to me. It had very much to do with departmental politics and was very unfair. I say that from a cool distance. Only much later did I realize that I was totally devastated. Academic writing and study had been a very creative thing for me. That’s where I put a lot of my energy. Somehow everything I had been doing just disappeared. That very same university offered me an honorary doctorate last year and I wrote an incredibly polite letter back saying, “Thank you very much. But actually I would like my real one.” [Laughs.] I heard nothing back.
What happened after that?
I moved back to England. At the time I was incredibly pregnant. I then had a baby and transferred for a second time into motherhood. I was incredibly domesticated; I knitted, sewed, baked, made jam and preserves, kept house and wondered why I was getting so frustrated. I started writing very personal fiction, very kind of, “Oh, God. My life is awful” kind of pieces. My doctorate was in the history of the short story since the world began, ending in America in the ’60s and ’70s. Because of that I was very aware of what made a good story. Then the first thing I ever sent anywhere won a big magazine competition. That was how I became a writer, really. It was a very slow burn. That was from first putting pen to paper around 1982 to winning that competition in 1986 to a novel accepted in 1994.
In your first week of college you formed the Dundee University Women’s Liberation Society. But you once said, “There’s no sisterhood. Women are their own worst enemies and behave very, very badly in some circles and in particular the media.” What’s up with that?
The British media is foul — there’s no way around that. After [I won] the Whitbread there was a lot of really snotty stuff. It’s very difficult for people to put me in a box. The worst was the Express. There was a female reporter and she was very nice and pleasant and was wanting to ask me about my family and my childhood and all that crap. My mother used to help out part time in my parents’ [surgical supply] shop. [The reporter] said to me, “Did you feel that because your parents worked that you were neglected in any way?” I kind of went, “No,” because it never even crossed my mind as a child. In the written interview it comes out, “I asked her if she felt neglected as a child and, though she denied it, a pained expression crossed over her features.” [Laughs.] It was like, “FUCK YOU, LADY.”
At The Guardian, which is our most intellectual newspaper, [the reporter] was talking about my hair, my nails and my clothes. She came up with a great line: “Meeting Atkinson is like expecting to eat Yorkshire pudding and instead getting sushi.” Many of these lines are burned into my brain. They were just bitchy, really. In France, I’m just a writer. But in [the U.K.], I’m treated as a woman rather than a writer. There’s a lot of gender politics here that people don’t notice because it’s so subtle. You don’t take it. You’re given it. You do an interview and everything is about your hair.
ONE GOOD TURN | By KATE ATKINSON | Little, Brown | 432 pages | $25 hardcover