Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling, Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

From the prologue: The buzz in the street was like the humming of flies. Photographers stood massed behind barriers patrolled by police, their long-snouted cameras poised, their breath rising like steam. Snow fell steadily on to hats and shoulders; gloved fingers wiped lenses clear. From time to time there came outbursts of desultory clicking, as the watchers filled the waiting time by snapping the white canvas tent in the middle of the road, the entrance to the tall red-brick apartment block behind it, and the balcony on the top floor from which the body had fallen.

"After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office. Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man. You may think you know detectives, but you've never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you've never seen them under an investigation like this."

This was quite a publicity stunt that was pulled by Mulholland Books. The Cuckoo’s Calling was published in late April, and in July, it was revealed that the author is actually J.K. Rowling. The result of this is that the book got both critical acclaim when it came out, and is now also an instant bestseller due to its author’s fame.  The stunt worked on me, but I must say that the book actually is really good, much better than The Casual Vacancy, Rowling’s other adult book. The mystery is compelling, and the writing is wonderful.

I think the key to reading The Casual Vacancy and The Cuckoo’s Calling is not to compare them to Harry Potter because they are not similar to it at all in plot. Instead, enjoy these two as their own books. I made that mistake with The Casual Vacancy, and my enjoyment of it suffered for that. Also, though, I think The Cuckoo’s Calling is a better book.

When Bristow comes to Strike’s office, Strike believes that he just has a dangerous obsession with his sister’s death, that of course Lula committed suicide. He takes the case on only because he has some serious financial problems, and (I would like to think), he wants to convince Bristow that the death was indeed suicide, and end the whole thing.

There were some marvelous descriptions of London in The Cuckoo’s Calling, in all its beauty and ugliness.  Here’s one passage: “It was nearly eight before he returned to the office. This was the hour when he found London most lovable; the working day over, her pubs were warm and jewel-like, her streets thrummed with life, and the indefatigable permanence of her aged buildings, softened by the street lights, became strangely reassuring. We have seen plenty like you, they seemed to murmur soothingly, as he limped along Oxford Street carrying a boxed-up camp bed. Seven and a half million hearts were beating in close proximity in this heaving old city, and many, after all, would be aching far worse than his. Walking wearily past closing shops, while the heavens turned indigo above him, Strike found solace in vastness and anonymity.” (pg. 48).  I love that passage; it really seems to convey the weariness and the beauty of London, as well as trike’s predicaments.

There are also amazing descriptions of the glittering, alien society of “multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers” that Strike finds himself plunged into.  Lula Landry had so many “friends” from so many different circles, and it’s hard to know why anyone would have killed her. But according to Strike, opportunity is more important than motive, and it seems utterly impossible that someone could have snuck into her apartment and escaped, given the details of the situation. Still, Bristow is convinced, and there’s a whole host of crazed witnesses claiming to have heard something through sound-proof glass.

Like The Casual Vacancy, there are many different threads of the plot, and many characters who are connected. For example, there’s Robin who becomes Strike’s secretary  and starts off Chapter 1, even though she’s not the main character. Nevertheless, her life is also delved into beside the main mystery; she’s just become engaged, etc. etc. But The Cuckoo’s Calling fit together much, much better than The Casual Vacancy; it was much more cohesive and I loved it. I realize, of course, that Rowling’s two adult novels are very different, in different genres. But still, The Cuckoo’s Calling was much better crafted.

It was also incredibly suspenseful. I was reading it late at night in the Albuquerque airport, and I basically read the first 100 pages in one sitting. At 1 AM on the airplane I was still reading it. Although eventually I had to put it down then, I probably would have finished it one sitting if it wasn't so late (early). I really wanted to find out what exactly had happened that night at Lula’s flat. The interesting thing is that there aren't a whole lot of clues to help the reader figure out whether it was a murder; there’s just the testimony. It’s not like Agatha Christie’s novels, where theoretically the reader could figure out everything about the murder. The Cuckoo’s Calling is also in the vein of hard-boiled detective novels  - British ones. I've definitely read a few American hard-boiled mysteries (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man), but never a British one. It was interesting.
I absolutely loved The Cuckoo’s Calling, truth be told more than I was expecting to. It was a wonderful mystery and a compelling story, which I would highly recommend. It both followed the vein of classic detective novels, and did new and interesting things.

455 pages.

Rating: *****

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