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Thriller sequel takes 'Turn' for the worse

One Good Turn
By Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown, 418 pp., $24.99

One good turn deserves another, of course, and one good book deserves a sequel -- or so it would seem that both author and publisher decided. Results are decidedly mixed, and in this follow-up to the highly successful "Case Histories" clichés ricochet about like popcorn in a microwave. No good deed goes unpunished. Crime doesn't pay (except for those characters smart enough and slick enough and sufficiently aided by authorial sleight of hand to outcon their con man ) . One good turn deserves another, which deserves another . . . and so forth, until the dominoes wheel back to their starting point with permutations both hilarious and dire . Making clichés stand on their heads is part of Kate Atkinson's witty game plan, but the acrobatics don't always work.

When "Case Histories" was published, Atkinson (who won Britain's 1995 Whitbread Prize for her first novel, "Behind the Scenes at the Museum") was hailed as a genre-bender, a literary intellectual who could write a good crime thriller. In this sequel, Atkinson brings her private eye, Jackson Brodie, back from the retirement he had just entered so triumphantly in the final pages of "Case Histories." Then he had found himself not only unexpectedly a millionaire, but also on the brink of shedding solitude and divorce in a new relationship with the sexy and unconventional (and mostly unemployed) actress Julia, a client at the center of one of the hitherto-unsolved case histories. In the new novel, Jackson is still a devoted father of 10-year-old Marlee but now lives on his inherited windfall in the south of France. Julia shuttles between the London stage and trysts in Provence, though when "One Good Turn" opens, she and Jackson are in Edinburgh for its arts festival: Julia because she is in a play ; Jackson because of Julia and because this will get him embroiled in a new case history.

Like its predecessor, "One Good Turn" is energized by the ironic knowingness and tongue-in-cheekiness of the authorial voice. Generally this is a delight, as when Jackson, clutching at a dead body in the ocean, thinks "how ironic it would be if he drowned trying to save a corpse." Not infrequently, however, the arch jokiness dips below the groan line, and the tone becomes tiresome and corny. "I've found Jesus," one character says. "Where was he?" responds another.

The omniscient author, capricious and manipulative, presides over both novels, blithely ignoring the usual rules of the murder mystery, making the reader privy to the inner thoughts of assorted victims and criminals. Coincidence and implausibility are rampant. In "Case Histories," this was all achieved with such page-turning panache that the reader scarcely noticed the gaping credibility holes in the plot, though they did accumulate .

In Atkinson's sequel the credibility gaps are more jarring and more exasperating. This has much to do with pace. "Case Histories" moved at such a riveting clip that the reader was hoodwinked, sensed it, but consented for multiple compensatory reasons. "One Good Turn," on the other hand, is almost mind-bogglingly static. The act of violence that sets the whole plot in motion erupts in the first three pages and the reader is hooked, then left dangling on his hook for the next 93 pages before a charge jolts the plot forward again. Even after the narrative lumbers into motion, there is no character so peripheral or so minor that the plot will not come to a standstill while he clambers aboard .

Characterization has always been one of Atkinson's strengths, and in this novel too her range is considerable: from Scottish landed gentry to a policewoman who is a single mom, from festival literati to Russian prostitutes with S&M skills, from teenage boys to corrupt real estate developers. Professional details are convincing. As in "Case Histories," most characters are compelling and complex, though the sequel is also rife with caricatures (the thuggish hit man, the sexless male writer of Victorian murder mysteries, the secretary hopelessly in love with her married boss ). Jackson himself degenerates into a bumbling self-parody. That, in fact, is the kindest way of viewing "One Good Turn": as a tongue-in-cheek spoof of detective fiction.

"Case Histories," among other things, was an affecting meditation on the brutal randomness of life, and Jackson was its compassionate moral center. Think of "One Good Turn" as Monty Python does "The Thomas Crown Affair": witty, clever, but also slapstick and cynical, with no moral center at all.

Janette Turner Hospital is Carolina Distinguished Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. Her most recent novel is "Due Preparations for the Plague."

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