Monday, April 21, 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling, a review...

Nothing gets me in the mood to write a mystery more than reading a few good ones. I picked several that have been top sellers this year and in recent years. One of these, the one I'm reviewing now, is the work of J.K. Rowling, who wrote the magnificent Harry Potter Series. I remember fondly staying up late to read them (I came across them when she had written most of them already).

I binged. There weren't enough hours in the day. I had to absorb each Harry Potter book, follow each new storyline, discover new magic... My eyes literally hurt when I finished book five. Luckily, book six and seven had yet to be finished and I got a much needed break.

And then it was over... J.K. Rowling is not Rick Riordan, who continued the story from his first Percy Jackson Series. When The Casual Vacancy came out, I remember wanting to read it. But I didn't for whatever reason. And then came Cormoran Strike written under a pseudonym (kinda like me).

It was too good to be true. J.K. Rowling writing a murder mystery! So, I read it.



Title: The Cuckoo's Calling
Author: Robert Galbraith
Genre: Private Eye / Murder Mystery

Premise: Private investigator Cormoran Strike is hired to take a second look at the apparent suicide of supermodel Lula Landry.

What didn't work for me:

There are three elements of a mystery novel, especially those mysteries involving Private Investigators, that help me enjoy it: The Detective; the modus operandi of the detective (or how he/she conducts business); the mystery / crime. When these elements are well executed, then I tend to enjoy those novels more. Poorly done...

So, how did J.K. Rowling (Galbraith) do? Let me address my grievances about those elements.

The Detective's detecting...

Pertaining to the way Cormoran Strike conducts business I was less than impressed. My logic is that J.K. Rowling is no stranger to writing mysteries. The Harry Potter books always had some little mystery for Harry and friends to solve; these were very catchy and brought life to the magic books.

So, I was confused why Cormoran, an investigator trained in the military, would turn to Wikipedia and Google at times to verify information. Now, granted, the subject of the investigation was a popular figure in life, but still... Some of the clues he gets come directly from unreliable articles he finds on the internet.

For example, one major clue comes from an article, which quotes an unidentified character during the funeral of Lula Landry. Cormoran decides this mystery person is important and tracks them down. Cormoran never questions the authenticity of the article; he just takes it as fact...

There are also complaints that this book has a sloooooooooooow plot, which is fairly accurate. The reason for this is that Cormoran's style of detecting is not very exciting. He has two modes: Internet and interview. So, for most of the book Cormoran interviews person after person. This is not so different than other novels of this type, but when I say interview, I mean interview. The subjects of his queries are brought to Cormoran with very little work done by the detective, thanks to the influential nature of his client. And he sits with them. And he asks his questions. They answer, even the uncomfortable questions that the police didn't think to ask.

Maybe if Cormoran had a bone of cunning, the smallest shred of it, then it would have made the interviews more rewarding. There were several times where he could have been clever and bypassed the my-client-is-influential-so-you-must-talk-to-me problem. For example, he has to find a person at a rehab clinic and straight out tells them that he is a detective looking for a person that had spent time in that clinic. He could have instead said that he is the washed out son of a famous rock star (technically true) and needed some time in the rehab center. Deception. It never crosses Cormoran's mind. How does he get the information he wants? A kind staff member at the rehab center decides to help him by neatly recalling all that he knows...

The mystery...

One thing that has to make sense to me when reading a mystery novel is why the police were unable to solve the crime in the first place (if a Private Eye is involved). If the detective is an actual police detective, then the problem never comes up. If the crime involves the supernatural, then it is easy to see how regular police detectives could fail to solve it or come to completely false conclusions.

In the case of Lula Landry's suicide, the problem was that the police labeled it a suicide from the very first chapter and stuck with it.

That bothered me, especially when we meet these policemen later in the book. They seemed too cartoonish to be real cops; and they had to be drawn that way for them to miss some of the clues they missed in Lula Landry's case.

You have to have some respect for police procedures if the mystery takes place in this world, and especially so if the mystery takes place in a city like LONDON!

What worked for me:

The Detective...

I like Cormoran Strike as a character. He is not the typical superman that sometimes haunts mysteries and thrillers. J.K. Rowling drew his shortcomings, physical and spiritual, in a realistic way.

At first, Cormoran comes off as a character that has traits meant to differentiate him from the other characters in the book (in an absurd way). So, he is big and tall, has a prosthetic leg, is mixed race, etc. etc. That was a turn off since Rowling has a knack for drawing characters with memorable physical traits (lightning-shaped scar, hint, hint).

As the story goes along, Cormoran's foibles, his inner flaws start to show. He has a foolish attraction to women who are beautiful and abuse him. He lets them because he doesn't think he deserves to be with them. The other side stories, his mother's murder (which likely will haunt the seven books Rowling plans to write about him) seemed interesting enough to want to know more about.

And sure, his detecting method is as exciting as watching a snail race, but he grows on you the way that Columbo does. In terms of personality, the two detectives are similar. They are not Sherlock Holmes and they know it. Their strengths come from what they see in others. And once they bite onto a suspect...

Overall, Cormoran Strike comes off as a humble, though flawed piece of work that is just enough a person, a real person, to follow for more than one book.

The Mystery...

Hard to believe this can be something that worked and didn't work for me. The mystery element worked for me in a meta level, as a teaching tool. It is a splash of ice cold water that wakes you up.

The novel is one of a line of old-fashioned detective stories that were once plentiful but have been replaced by thrillers and modern mysteries (like Gone Girl). There is the traditional ending, where the detective spills his guts about how he figured things out. This one has less action than most, but it still follows the formula.

The typical exposition at the climax, the looooooooong detective's logic that goes on for pages, was what got me. It read...antiquated, dated. That is a hard pill to swallow when you're planning to write something like it in the near, near future. The Cuckoo's Calling definitely shows that the whodunit has wrinkles along its aged skin.

On another level, I like to think that J.K. Rowling will push past this first awkward attempt to write an improved Cormoran Strike mystery. I have faith that she has that much talent.


This mystery has a slow, slow pace that rewards a bit in its climax. Maybe cutting about a hundred pages would have helped sharpen the dull edges. But the real treat here isn't the detecting or the tragedy of Lula Landry (I could never truly understand her). The real treat is the J.K. Rowling narration and its protagonist, Cormoran Strike.

The narration reveals some of what must be J.K. Rowling's thoughts on her fans and her fame. It is interesting to read.

He makes the fiction work. She makes the narration do more than tell a story.