Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling (Robert Galbraith)

Here it is: my review of J.K. Rowling's pseudonymously-published mystery novel, The Cuckoo's Calling. I remember how excited I was upon discovering the news that this mystery novel, published rather quietly earlier in the year, was actually written by Rowling.

I've never thought of myself as a mystery reader, but for some reason, the idea has begun to grow more and more appealing (especially in the past three or four months, a phenomenon for which I have no explanation). So I was willing to give this a go because Rowling is talented and some of the Potter books read like mystery novels (in particular Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban). It wouldn't exactly be my first go-round under her hand.

Cormoran Strike is our heroic detective, a veteran of Afghanistan who lost one of his legs from the knee down. A few months prior to the novel's opening, the adopted, half-black supermodel Lula Landry falls from the third-floor balcony of her fancy apartment and the world mourns, believing it to have been a suicide due to her bipolarity. However, her adopted brother John Bristow doesn't believe it possible--he doesn't seem to think Lula would have killed herself and he comes to Cormoran Strike asking to reopen the investigation.

At about the same time, Strike gets a new secretary, Robin Ellacott, a woman who secretly wants to be a detective. Eager to work, she begins to help him investigate the circumstances despite his gruff personality (owing, of course, to his recent breakup with his love of many years). So they go about asking all sorts of people to speak again of the murder: the apartment complex's other tenants, the doorman, Lula's model friends and rockstar boyfriend--anyone and everyone is relevant to the investigation.

Unfortunately, I had several problems with the book, the first being the actual mystery--I wasn't compelled to find out who had killed Lula. I was willing to accept that she threw herself off the balcony because there was nothing really intriguing about the murder, no hook that looked really suspicious (I'm thinking of a door locked from the inside, like Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, or anything to give me pause). So it's a bit of a drag for a heavy portion of the book, or was for me at least. I was never gripped the way I think I'm supposed to (is that correct? Like I said, I don't read mysteries).

And then there's Rowling's fervent penchant for describing everything at all times--Strike walks into someone's office and we get a full picture, down to the color of the telephone. It's exhausting and I got the curious feeling that I was trying to bushwhack my way through a dense forest--it was occasionally a struggle to read The Cuckoo's Calling because of how thick the passages were. Description like this is great in the Potter books because we're told about a secret magical world where wizards go to a castle-school and learn magic and all of that is new and interesting and I wanted to hear it all described. But a describing the ordinary world so heavily, the need to catalog it all, is just tiresome because we are familiar with it already. Intimately, because it is our daily lives.

The book runs about 450 pages, and I can't help but feel it was bloated. These huge chunks of narrative devoted to description don't help, of course, but there's a curious amount of focus on Strike's bizarre parentage (he is the son of a rockstar and a woman who became infamous for sleeping with such musicians) and his failed relationship with his love interest. Of course these are important details to understanding Strike's personality, but since I'm pretty sure this is supposed to be a series, it seems unnecessary to explain all of this at once. It, too, is tiring.

Robin Ellacott is the best character without a doubt--she's funny, she's incredibly smart on her feet, she's very kind to Cormoran and driven and everything I would want in a character. I'm getting annoyed with myself for all the Harry Potter references (since I refused to do it when I talked about The Casual Vacancy, as I should have), but she reminds me of Hermione, if Hermione were a Muggle and not so desperate to prove her knowledge. The problem, then, is that we don't get enough of her. I would have loved more of the book from Robin's perspective.

The last 30% or so of the book is rather more riveting as the narrative starts to come together, but the actual identity of the killer is a little ludicrous. The possibility occurred to me several times during the book, but I laughed it off as gimmicky and implausible. And then it happened. But the big reveal when Cormoran confronts the killer is indeed fascinating, and it's satisfying to see all of the small details Rowling laid earlier click together (of course, because that's one of the things she's best at--her planning is impeccable). It's just muted by what I think is a slightly goofy way to end it.

So I'm torn. It took me far longer than it should have to read this book because I was dragging my feet through the overdescription and occasionally heavy backstory. It would have been great had somebody bothered to trim some of it out--the book could use some slimming. And maybe the ending will grow on me. Who knows. Will I read the next book (that is, if it exists)? Probably.

My rating: 3/5
The Cuckoo's Calling on Goodreads
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