Well, it took seven-and-a-half years and over one thousand posts, but it’s finally happened: I have read a book about which I can find nothing to say.
The Good Turn (2022) is Sharna Jackson’s third full-length mystery for younger readers — after High-Rise Mystery (2019) and Mic Drop (2020) — and is so beautifully intentioned that one feels like a grinch is acknowledging its many flaws, yet the book is also so frustratingly bad that to praise it in spite of said flaws in evidence feels somehow dishonest. It’s a vexing experience, then, and one that I’ll do a bad job summarising as I find it very difficult indeed to come to any kind of consensus on its overall quality.
10 year-old Josephine, inspired by learning that the first ever Girl Scout troop set up exclusively for girls of colour was done so in America in the 1920s, starts her own Scout group with her two best friends Margot and Wesley, naming it The Copseys after the road on which they all live. Inspired by a message of positivity and contributing to their community, they begin to get involved in various projects in their local area, learning about hermit neighbours and various other people around them, while dealing with the modern considerations of non-traditional families, non-standard friendships, and a general burgeoning awareness that the world is much bigger, and much less pleasant, than their limited experience of life in Luton has ever made them consider before.
At the back of all this, as Jackson explains in the afterword, is a deeply-felt sense of social justice inspired by the Windrush scandal which hit the UK in recent years, something Jackson writes well, and clearly feels very strongly, about. And while this is admirable motivation for a book aimed at younger readers, especially one that does its level best to present complex ideas clearly, the book that Jackson has written to do this just isn’t very good, with the message she wishes to explore far greater than the means she utilises in doing so.
For a start, it is painfully slow, with each chapter pretty much moving the plot forward in a way that could be achieved in a single sentence. And I don’t mean in broad strokes, I mean you could reduce the chapter to a single sentence and not miss anything from a plot perspective, so clear and basic are the steps taken. There’s a real leadenness in the scene-setting, the character decisions, the general sense of progression, that feels completely at odds with Jackson’s first two books — her debut especially, which was an absolute joy of light-footed character, plotting, location, and atmosphere work — that it’s difficult not to wonder if she felt a little over-awed by the themes she was seeking to explore and so has trodden too carefully around them.
The plotting is so A to B to C to D simplistic and plodding that the book feels as if it’s aimed at the younger end of the 8 to 12 year-old market that most of the works featured in these Minor Felonies posts aim for, yet the progression is so slow and the sense of event and motion so tepid that I can’t honestly believe any child that young won’t lose interest in thing pretty darn quickly. The one thing I have especially enjoyed about these mysteries for younger readers is how fast so many of them move, capturing the youthful imagination of their intended audience with colourful ideas presented clearly, explored quickly, and added to in an entertaining manner. By comparison, The Good Turn is like something by Georges Simenon — realist, faintly depressing, and difficult to get too energised about. And, look, there’s definitely a place for that book, but when you encounter it you sort of wonder why anyone wrote it in the first place.
In its favour, I must say, is that Jackson’s ear for the cadence of how young people talk — and not just what they say, but how they often say the wrong thing — is spectacular. The dialogue doesn’t crackle, but it gets under your skin because of how damn realistic it feels, as if our author has limitless hours to just ait around observing the social interactions of the young so that she can cherry-pick the most suitable for inclusion in her plots. I loved the casual, almost studied disregard of Nik and Norva from Jackson’s first two books, but the interactions of Josie, Wesley, and Margot — especially the last two, who Josie wants to be friends yet who keep naturally finding themselves in mutually antagonising positions — are on another level, and it would take very little effort on my part to simply read a book in which these three sat in a room and threw dialogue back and forth.
Unfortunately, these magnificently-realised characters have found themselves mired in a plot that relies on principles which are at once too simple and too simplistic to really compel. The mistreatment of the Windrush families is a generational shame, and should leave a stain on the British psyche for hundreds of years to come, and as such it feels like it’s simply too much to try to find sufficient parallels for a book aimed at such a young audience. The essential idea that we should contribute more and seek to make the best of the world we occupy is pleasingly acynical, and the world to which Jackson wants to apply this message is sufficiently unsimplified to feel like a realistic intention with a firm, intelligent purpose behind it. But, once past these starting conditions, especially as a piece of plotted mystery fiction intended to capture the imaginations of the young, it stumbles badly and never really recovers.
So, okay, I did find something to say about this, but I feel somewhat discontent in this summary; I applaud Jackson’s intentions, but The Good Turn is a book that’s far, far easier to admire than it is to recommend.