Tuesday, July 30, 2013

"The Cuckoo's Calling" by "Robert Galbraith" aka J.K. Rowling

I love Harry Potter. I'm not afraid to admit that. I've read all of the books countless times and I consider myself something of a reasonable authority on the subject of Wizarding lore. When The Deathly Hallows was published I found it to be a satisfying conclusion, and I have no reservations about saying that I enjoyed J.K. Rowling's fantasy series from beginning to end. I would have been curious to read more by her, but it wasn't until 2012 that The Casual Vacancy arrived. It had been five years since Harry Potter had reached its close, I had a fair bit of other reading going on and I wasn't especially interested in what I heard about the book so thus far I have not read the latest publication by J.K. Rowling under her own name. When it was recently revealed, however, that she had pseudonymously published a detective novel under the pen-name 'Robert Galbraith' I was intrigued for a variety of reasons.
The first would be that I enjoyed J.K. Rowling's work in Harry Potter as genre fiction. Detective fiction is another genre which interests me, although I'm mostly just a diehard for Sherlock Holmes stories. I already consider Rowling to be, therefore, a strong genre writer, so as such I was more interested in The Cuckoo's Calling than I was in The Casual Vacancy. The second reason is that as much as I like detective fiction I don't read a great deal of it, so it would be a welcome change after completing A Tale of Two Cities, which was good, but extremely heavy. I was in the mood for something a bit fluffy and lightweight, which I could predict that The Cuckoo's Calling would be. Finally, I was keen for something of a page-turner, which is what I got.
As I've established, The Cuckoo's Calling is not some heavy piece of literature. It's unashamed genre detective fiction, and no worse off for that fact. It doesn't have as much to say, nor the dense plot of Harry Potter, and even in comparison to that it's not as involving. It's just a good mystery. Our detective du jour is the implausibly-named Cormoran Strike, an ex-army private eye who's down on his luck. He's hired to investigate the mysterious alleged suicide of a supermodel, and off we go.
I needn't go into the plot in any detail. As is standard for modern detective fiction there is an expanding web of intrigue and deceit which must be unravelled by Strike and his temporary secretary Robin, featuring plenty of scandal and derring-do. The novel makes an interesting exploration of the superficialities and hollowness of the wealthy and super-wealthy classes, the abuse of privilege and the responsibility or lack thereof in the hands of modern media. Strike is the outsider in this system capable of moving between classes in order to better interrogate their relationships while he is more literally questioning his suspects. It's a fairly merciless portrayal of the wealthy in particular, although it casts a critical eye on people from all walks of life. The parallel of Strike's personal history with the case under investigation goes a long way towards establishing this theme, although it would take more time and energy than I'm willing to devote at the moment to provide a substantial reading of the kind of arguments it is making about fame and fortune.
If I had been given this book before its author was revealed and had been informed that it was an author I'd already read using a pseudonym I don't think I would have struggled to guess that it was Rowling. Not unlike Harry Potter with swearing, the general tone operates on a scale from whimsical to snarky without ever descending into entirely cynical or harsh territory. The prose is rarely difficult or dense and generally feels consistent with previous writing, even lacking, I would argue, a good deal of the bleakness of some of the later Harry Potter novels. One thing I found somewhat noticeable was Rowling's predilection for describing her characters in great detail and, in some instances, fixating on elements of their appearance. I sometimes felt like I had a much better idea of what characters looked like than who they necessarily were as people. Strike is perhaps the exception, although I personally felt like I didn't have as firm a grip upon him as I would like, occasionally feeling more like the plot-driver with an unpleasant backstory. Robin was perhaps a little stronger in this regard, although in general Rowling makes some of her points more explicitly than others. Robin's desire to continue working with Strike, for instance, is made abundantly, even unconvincingly clear. We don't see why she puts up with her fiancé, on the other hand, who comes across as an unsupportive grump.
The plot is largely a sequence of conversations, Strike interviewing more and more witnesses and suspects until he discerns the truth, and in that regard it can feel a little repetitious at points, if not altogether unusual for detective fiction. It moves along, however, at a decent pace, and there are numerous minor mysteries which more or less combine to form a cohesive whole.
I enjoyed The Cuckoo's Calling and it's largely for that reason that I don't feel the need to go on and on about it. Personally I think it's more or less as readable as Harry Potter, if not necessarily as imaginative, and that fans of Rowling's previous work might enjoy it. It's no masterpiece but in terms of giving me a few days' worth of decent entertainment it got the job done. A sequel is already on the way, I believe, and I for one will be interested to read another adventure featuring Cormoran Strike.