Monday, October 7, 2013

Review: The Cuckoo's Calling

I’d like to begin my review of The Cuckoo’s Calling by giving you a bit of context.

Reasons Why I Read The Cuckoo’s Calling
·      Its author, rooky novelist Robert Galbraith, was revealed to be none other than J.K. Rowling—personal hero and queen of my heart—writing under a pseudonym.
·      I don’t usually read mysteries or thrillers. I thought it might be beneficial to my writing to branch out.
·      J.K. Rowling wrote it!
·      As much as I adore Harry Potter, I really, really could not get through The Casual Vacancy. I thought, “Maybe that was a fluke. Maybe I’m not British enough to get it. Maybe this one will be different. I should really give her one more shot…”
·      I recently watched BBC’s Sherlock and was craving more detective funsies in the absence of a third season.
·      Joanne Kathleen bloody Rowling! Seriously, guys! I love her!!!

In other words…yes, my massive fangirl, bordering-on-worship, nerd crush on J.K. Rowling is pretty much 100% of why I picked up The Cuckoo’s Calling. Please do not let that fact deter you from reading it, though, because—in all honesty—this is just the sort of detective story that you will love curling up with on a rainy day with some tea and a blanket, dreaming, if you’re anything like me, of running around the misty streets of London with protagonist Cormoran Strike.

Private detective Strike is my favorite protagonist that I’ve read in a long while. He’s a war vet, burdened by a messy family history, current relationship issues, and the nuisance of a partially amputated leg. The way in which Rowling describes him—he’s hulking, hairy, and not much of a looker; a far cry from, say, Benedict Cumberbatch’s androgynously dreamy Sherlock—is endearing and somewhat reminiscent of a familiar Rowling character. I couldn’t help but picture him as a younger, surlier Rubeus Hagrid! For all of his physical and psychological wounds, though, Strike manages to float above the typical tropes of misanthropy and emotional wallowing. His skill in reading people, his awkwardly sweet (platonic!) interactions with temporary secretary Robin, and his skill in piecing together the crime make him an endearing and believable hero.

The mystery itself concerns supermodel Lula Landry’s death. When the gorgeous but troubled Lula takes a swan dive off her apartment balcony, the police conclude that it’s a suicide. But Lula’s wealthy brother smells foul play, and hires Strike to investigate. In typical Rowling style, a colorful cast of characters is introduced as Strike wades through the people and places connected to Lula during her last days of life. The mystery unravels slowly but logically. There are no completely ludicrous moments, and the resolution doesn’t come from left field. There’s no, “Aha! It turns out she was murdered by the postman who was mentioned in one sentence on page 17!” here. I was able to predict the ending, but I didn’t feel that it was too obvious or that the conclusion came too early in the text. Then again, I’m not a mystery reader and I also wasn’t trying particularly hard to guess where things were going; so some fans of the genre might have a different experience.

Significant attention is also paid to themes of social inequality, media obsession, and the “price” of fame—again, familiar territory for Rowling—but I found that these themes toed the line between being strongly developed and preachy fairly well. It’s interesting, too, to consider the difference between Rowling writing about (Harry’s) fame when she was still an unknown writer, versus her new insights on it as one of the most well known and sought after writers in the world. At one point, she remarks that “[Strike] had never been able to understand the assumption of intimacy fans felt with those they had never met.” I know that if I met JKR, my first instinct would be to run up to her and hug her silly; and I’m sure many other people feel and have felt the same. I can only imagine how strange it must be to exist on the receiving end of that sort of love and respect, coming from people who know you only through your words.

Of course, many of her insights into the lifestyles of the rich and famous are also downright hilarious. One of my favorite characters, fashion designer Guy Somé, has this to say about Lula’s rock star boyfriend:
“I’ll tell you,” he said, without pausing for an answer. “It’s that wounded-poet crap, that soul-pain shit, that too-much-of-a-tortured-genius-to-wash bollocks. Brush your teeth, you little bastard. You’re not fucking Byron.”
Air snaps! All the air snaps!

My one complaint is a bit ironic, since it concerns a characteristic of Rowling’s writing that made the HP books so wonderful. Rowling takes the time to describe absolutely everything, in painstaking detail. This is fantastic when she’s world building in a fantasy novel, but it can really tank the pacing when we’re dealing with modern day London. I’m all for detail, but I don’t need paragraph-long descriptions of the surroundings or of random people on the street who will never be discussed again. Some streamlining could have benefitted the pace and tone of the narrative. On the other hand, Rowling-writing-for-grownups has the benefit of lots of decidedly un-HPish descriptions that are relentlessly fun. Take, for instance, this simile: “…when her mouth puckered into hard little lines around the cigarette, it looked like a cat’s anus.” You never get to see Harry thinking something like that!

Ultimately, I enjoyed the novel and was left with that same cozy feeling I always get at the end of a J.K. Rowling story. There’s something about her writing that makes me want to crawl up inside it and just snuggle in the words. I still love you, Jo! I’d happily read more Cormoran Strike novels. Keep ‘em coming!

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