A good/great novel for me is one in which I truly care about the characters.
I just read When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson, whose mystery One Good Turn I reviewed last week. I don’t plan to review When Will There Be Good News? other than to say it’s wonderful. What I want to do is to comment on the importance of characters in a novel, even in the mystery genre where the plot is usually paramount.
As readers of my blog know, I’m a huge fan of Agatha Christie and Rex Stout (see my appreciations in Past Masters and Mistresses) and other Golden Age writers, but most of their characters, except for the detectives, are cardboard, interchangeable pieces who are important to the plot but who don’t touch you as real people. But Ms. Atkinson’s characters are so real, so human, that you can empathize or criticize or admire them as if they existed in real life. When you are reading a book and one of the characters is shot, kidnapped, or otherwise hurt, and you hear yourself give a gasp of fear or horror or surprise–then you know that the author has created living, breathing characters. Conversely, when one of the characters you like falls in love, escapes from a perilous place, or solves the crime, and you find you have a smile on your face–you know the author knows how to touch his/her readers.
The two mysteries by Kate Atkinson that I’ve read (there’s another one in between these two) seem to me to be complete circles. I mean that in the best possible way, that the novels are complete. When you get to the end you feel the story has reached its natural conclusion. Even if, as is the case in When Will There Be Good News? and One Good Turn, the very last lines are a complete surprise, they make perfect sense and complete the novels’ circles.
It’s a joy to read books like these.