The Cuckoo’s Calling

Double kudos to Jo.

Double kudos to Jo.

  • Author:  J.K. Rowling  (writing as Robert Galbraith)
  • Published:  2013
  • Publisher:  Mulholland Books  (U.S.)  /  Sphere  (U.K.)
  • Pages:  453
  • First Line:  “The buzz in the street was like the humming of flies.”
  • Last Line:  “It took minutes to dredge up the lines Strike had learned so long ago.”
  • Film Version:  Would be great; surely will be forthcoming
  • First Read:  This week

Don’t Worry – There are no Spoilers

The Novel:  I called the store when I first saw the story and put one of our two remaining copies on hold.  I was called back 10 minutes later and told that even as an employee, if I wanted the book, I needed to pay for it.  A half hour later we were at the Booksmith and I had it in my hand (quick side note – this was a double benefit – the day before Veronica and Thomas had gone to the WGBH Funfest, which was way overcrowded, which meant that they didn’t get food from Roxy’s, who was also there and who we have wanted a grilled cheese sandwich from ever since Season 2 of “The Great Food Truck Race”; well, after getting the book, thanks to V checking her Iphone, we were off to Cleveland Circle and we sat in the shade at the park eating our sandwiches – if you are in Boston, find out where the truck is and get some good food).

Now, I am not much of a mystery reader and I constantly find myself with not much to say when people ask me for a good mystery to read.  How about Dash Hammett I want to say.  Or Raymond Chandler.  I also go with some James Ellroy, but outside of his L.A. Quartet, they tend to get a bit on the, well, fascist side.  I eagerly recommend Dennis Lehane because I have read his books and they’re quite good and he’s very nice and since he lives practically right around the corner from the Booksmith he’s like family now.  Every now and then I try someone that everyone is reading and sometimes I’m disgusted by the content (Stieg Larsson) and sometimes by the quality of writing (James Patterson).  A quick glance at the Top 100 Mystery-Thriller-Suspense books at Amazon shows I have read four – three of them are this book (it’s on there at #1 (Kindle), #3 (the book) and #8 (audio)) and the other is To Kill a Mockingbird (what the hell?).  So when a new British mystery writer debuted a few months ago I not only didn’t give it a second thought, I didn’t even give it a first thought.  I never even noticed the book.

Ah, but once the word slipped on Sunday that this book was in fact the work of one Jo Rowling, the ever-famous J.K. of Harry Potter fame, I was ever too happy to read the book.  I have already written before about my love for the Harry Potter series.  And I was one of the people who not only bought The Casual Vacancy, but also thought very highly of it (it just missed my revised best books of the century so far, a modern day version of Thomas Hardy in my opinion) and may include it in this series a little later (which would be timely, since it comes out in paperback on Tuesday).  And so I bought the book and brought it home and now it’s done.

And what are the results?  Damn good ones, in my opinion.  Mystery writers have to do several things and Rowling does all of them.  First, you have to create a plausible plot that not only makes sense, but keeps moving and keeps you interested (the new Pynchon novel coming out in September, which is also a mystery, is not nearly as good at that, but who expects plausibility from Pynchon?).  At 453 pages, the book is neither too long nor does it wrap things up too quickly.  Second, you need to create characters that the reader wants to read about.  They don’t have to be the most likable but they can’t push you away.  Rowling does a first-rate job with Cormoran Strike (which is, by the way, a great name).  She generates sympathy from the very first start with a man who is just a little bit pathetic – living in his office after a bad breakup, a bit overweight, scratched up from a final encounter with the woman who is now gone.  That is how he first meets Robin, who will be his secretary, sent his way by a temp agency.  The first encounter is a painful one – literally, as Strike slams into her and then, to keep her from falling down the stairs, grabs her by the breast.  But we encounter Strike through Robin – the same way we first met Harry through the prism of the Dursley’s world or how we come into The Casual Vacancy through the eyes of a man whose death will ignite all of the actions.  Come to think of it, all three books begin with death – with the Potters, with Barry Fairbrother, and with the model Lula Landry, whose mysterious death sets the actions of The Cuckoo’s Calling in motion.  Robin is our common man view into the action – she is thrilled to be working in a detective office, having thought about this job since she was a kid, and for someone who owns a fedora because he wants to be Sam Spade, I can totally understand that.

But it’s not the just main characters who are interesting.  There is the background for Strike, of course, which only gets more interesting as we learn more.  But there are also other characters.  Take Guy Somé (the Christian name is pronounced the French way, rhyming with glee, which Robin has to tell Strike and I was reminded of my own ignorance of pop culture when, in reference to something on tv last night I asked Veronica who the hell Honey Boo Boo was).  He’s Lula’s designer.  When we are finally introduced to him, a couple of hundred pages in, we are expecting an uptight bitchy designer.  But we get someone much more likable, someone who really cared about his model, who desperately wants to know what happened to her and what he could have done differently.  We walk in with Strike expecting a stereotype and Rowling gives us an actual person – something she manages to do time and time again.

She’s also true to her surroundings.  Harry Potter had scenes in London, but they were a mythical, magical London that only existed in the world of Harry Potter.  And in The Casual Vacancy we get a modern view of small time British life, of bitter council battles and teen rebellion.  This novel has all the same technology hallmarks that Rowling showed she could write about realistically in Vacancy but feel even closer to her experience.  At one point we get a character who does something rather brilliant with phones because the person’s phone has been hacked by the press (“the paps” we are constantly told about  – and the phone hacking and constant paparazzi presence, so much more intense in Britain than it can be here are reminders of what Rowling’s life has been since her Potter success).  We get a London that is vibrant and alive as people criss-cross it, from Hammersmith, down to the shadows of Canary Wharf, a world as strange to some of us as it is to Robin, a young girl straight from Yorkshire.

The third thing you have to do as a mystery writer is to play fair with the audience.  I love the Sherlock Holmes books, but I was always aggravated that he always seemed to solve the mystery with knowledge that we weren’t privy to.  Strike figures things out before us and he keeps secrets, but we are also privy to almost all of the information that he learns and we can start to figure out things along with him.  Rowling never cheats, never tries to show how smart Strike is by coming up with stuff we haven’t seen in the actual book (well, at one point he does, but he’s made it up, so that’s actually okay).  She plays fair with her audience and we are rewarded with a first-rate mystery book.

I don’t blame Jo Rowling for writing this book and not putting her name on it.  She certainly doesn’t need the money from the sales (several years ago she was already ranked as the 12th richest woman in Britain).  She wanted to write for the same reason that all writers write – because it is what they do and they love what they do.  She had written a very good book in The Casual Vacancy and she got mixed reviews, partially because it wasn’t what people were expecting, and partially because people love to watch you fall.  So she wrote this for the joy of writing it and published it to see what would come.  What came were very good reviews.  There were some decent sales as well – 1500 copies in hardcover of a first-time detective writer.  As Stephen King, who once wrote under his own pseudonym (sadly, not as well – the Bachman books aren’t nearly as good as King’s regular books): “Jo is right about one big thing–what a pleasure, what a blessed relief, to write in anonymity, just for the joy of it.”  Good for Jo, writing that book and getting out there and published so it could be reviewed under its own terms.  It continues to prove what the Harry Potter books and Vacancy had already established – that Rowling is one of the most gifted story-tellers around.  I never would have picked it up if it hadn’t been written by Rowling, and it’s too bad if I hadn’t.  That happens sometimes – that’s what your independent booksellers are there for – to tell you what you should read.  So listen to them.  And once more copies get printed, do yourself a favor and read it.  It’s worth the read.