Saturday, August 3, 2013

Review of THE CUCKOO'S CALLING by JK Rowling/Robert Galbraith

cuckoo's calling cover

Proposed alternate title: "Lucky Strike" (it's ironic... or is it?)

Comoran Strike is down on his luck, to say the least: he just broke up with his rich fiancé, is sleeping in his office because he can't afford a hotel, is one more missed rent check away from losing his business, and on top of all that he only has one leg. Pretty sad story. But his fortunes turn when temp secretary Robin shows up at his door. Soon he's garnered a case that seems impossible to solve: the death of a famous supermodel, which the police ruled a suicide. Her brother believes it was murrrderrrr and wants Strike to prove it. Will Strike be able to solve the not-actually-a-murder and get his shit together by the end of the book???

JK Rowling and a mystery novel, what could go wrong? I heard The Cuckoo's Calling described somewhere as a classic hardboiled detective mystery but without the misogyny, and that's actually a perfect single-sentence summary of the book (not that it passes the Bechdel Test--it doesn't). You've got everything from a His Girl Friday to antagonistic police detectives and a slew of suspects, so it definitely aims to please crime novel fans, of which I am one. That said, the mystery is truly ridonkulous and the story ain't exactly gripping.

When The Cuckoo's Calling begins, it's surprisingly funny and entertaining. Like I was literally laughing out loud. Robin and Strike have great chemistry and I loved that Robin's dream as a kid was to be a private detective (you have to admit it sounds like a cool job). She is alllll up in the gumshoeing. Strike is also a great character, very sympathetic and with a Dark Past. I was enjoying The Cuckoo's Calling so much I was actually considering buying it. In hardcover! If you know anything about me, this is a supreme vote of confidence.

BUT. As the book went on, it got pretty boring. There is a lot of talking in this novel. Walking and talking, talking and walking, that's all Strike does for 150 pages; and it feels like an exercise in futility because there are no clues or information about the supposed murder. Instead of an actual mystery, we're treated to meditations on some of Rowling's pet topics: celebrity, daddy issues, blah blah blah. I don't mind mysteries that are just an excuse to talk about other things by any means, but one generally does need some plot in there to keep the whole thing moving. The Maltese Falcon's mystery was a metaphor, too, but The Maltese Falcon was also only about 200 pages, not 450.

The story does pick up later in the book, when Strike finally gets around to interviewing people who might actually know something, but the conclusion... UHG. It was unholy annoying. First of all, as I mentioned, the mystery was head-shakingly silly. I guessed who the murderer was about halfway through the novel, so that wasn't a surprise, and I had kind of figured out the how and why by the time the big Poirot-style reveal came around, too. But the clues Strike used to figure everything out stretched the bonds credibility. The puddle on the floor made him think flowers instead of snow even though it was snowing outside, really? This man's ability to wildly speculate on what evidence means is mind-boggling.

Also, the end of the novel left a whole bunch of loose threads hanging. Such as: why in the name of god is this book title The Cuckoo's Calling? The model is only called Cuckoo once in the entire course of the novel, and the main character is named Strike! Does Rowling not watch Castle at all?? How can you have a detective named Strike and not use that as a play on words in the title? Also, why did Strike start a PI business? Who does that anymore? He could have done anything: gone back to university, worked for the police, started a security consulting firm (which, if the romance novels are to be believed, is a much more lucrative profession). I still have no idea what his motivation is. After 450 pages of walking and talking, have I mentioned that???

I am also—and perhaps unreasonably—annoyed that there wasn't more of Robin in the book. For one, the only entertaining scenes, aside from one notable exception (Strike club crawling with a ditsy model), were the ones with Robin in them. I can't help but feel that The Cuckoo's Calling would have been much more interesting if it had been framed as Robin's story rather than Strike's. And I think there's an argument to be made that the book IS actually Robin's story, but the series needs to play out a bit more before I'll commit to that.

I'm not saying that The Cuckoo's Calling is an awful book, just that it's a mixed bag. It's too long and Rowling could do with putting more work into her mystery plots. But like I said, the beginning is delightful and Rowling's writing is as clever and sharp as ever. I think if you're a fan of Rowling's you'll want to read The Cuckoo's Calling, and you'll probably even enjoy it. Despite my general annoyances with this one, I'll definitely read "Robert Galbraith's" second book.

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