Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Cuckoo’s Calling: A Review

Elizabeth Zelvin

As every reader must have heard by now, JK Rowling was angry she got outed as the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling. I hope she gets over it soon, because in my opinion, she needn’t be, and not because she might as well laugh all the way to the bank.
The book is a private eye mystery purported to be by a first-time author with a military background. It’s not a thriller, by the way, though it’s been called by the more bankable term. Anyhow, in spite of great reviews, it was tanking as an unknown author’s debut. It didn’t even sell the couple of thousand copies sold that most midlist authors manage. And then the secret go tweeted, by the publisher’s lawyer’s girlfriend’s sister, if I remember correctly. That prompted an awful lot of people to quote the proverb, “Three people can keep a secret, if two of them or dead.” (Benjamin Franklin said it first; I saw it attributed to the Hell’s Angels the other day, evidence that our cultural history is on the skids.)

I say thank goodness for that tweet. Without it and the subsequent publicity, which of course shot the book to the top of the best seller lists, we, readers at large, and especially mystery readers, would never have discovered The Cuckoo’s Calling and would therefore have been deprived of a great pleasure. Nor could she possibly have made it a series—publication of sequels to books that fail is one of those things that even winning the lottery (which Rowling did, metaphorically, with the success of Harry Potter) can’t buy. I’m sure I’m only one of many thousands of readers thrilled to hear that Rowling is planning to give us more of her appealing PI, Cormoran Strike.

So what makes this book so wonderful? What had this increasingly picky reader grinning with pure pleasure as she read? For one thing, her protagonist, Strike, is smart, complex, and above all, endearing, as is his secretarial sidekick, Robin. Some readers don’t mind not having a character to love. Not me. Rowling’s first post-Potter book, a literary novel called The Casual Vacancy, failed for me for just that reason. It was deftly written and did a good job with the socioeconomic issues she made her underlying theme, but every one of her multiple point of view characters had, as my father used to say, “feet of clay.” (Image from the Old Testament, Book of Daniel; first known use 1814 according to one dictionary source.) If she’d written another of the same kind the next time, I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading the book.

In The Cuckoo’s Calling, Rowling again uses multiple POV. She even pulls off a prologue in omniscient third person by giving us the scene of the death that drives the plot. But makes the story work immeasurably better by giving the majority of the book to Strike and Robin. Strike is an interesting man. Strike’s history is to some extent backstory, but Rowling skillfully uses our knowledge of these things to deepen our empathy with Strike. Every time someone throws in Strike’s parentage, it increases the reader’s partisanship as those he encounters in the course of his investigation blunders tactlessly past his boundaries—though not past his guard—on this painful subject. She also keeps up the tension in his relationship with Robin, making it a successful subplot with plenty more to come as the series continues.

These are virtues of the book as a novel. It also succeeds brilliantly as a mystery. Strike is a few steps ahead of Robin, the police, and the reader all the way through the investigation. The latter is a trick I wish I could pull off myself, but I know the limitations of my talent as a plotter of mysteries. The Cuckoo’s Calling establishes Rowling as a world-class mystery writer. I imagine she wanted to see how well she could do as a writer without readers being influenced by her fame as the author of the Harry Potter books. For my money, she has nothing left to prove.


Sheila Connolly said...

Just finished the book last night and thoroughly enjoyed it (and didn't figure out whodunnit in advance).

The public fuss was great entertainment in itself, with lots of pointing fingers. If (still an open question?) Rowling sincerely wanted to see if she had the writing chops after eliminating all the hype, kudos to her. If not, it was still a good read.

One point struck me, though. Many of us in the writers community followed the publication/pseudonym story, but I don't recall anyone saying, "this is not the voice of a male writer," which seemed very obvious to me.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Interesting point, Sheila. Not sure whether or not I agree. Do we automatically think "female voice" when we read text that's character-driven and sensitive to emotional nuance? Or is it more a matter of word choice in the narrative voice?

Jody said...

I enjoyed this book as well. I did think in the beginning that it could have used a bit of additional editing. Way wordy at times, but as I progressed through the book, I was enjoying every word. I do think I'd enjoy a sequel. Cormoran Strike is an interesting character.

Patrick said...

I recently wrote the following on my blog's Facebook page, and my opinion has remained unchanged:


It’s been hard to avoid, but ever since J. K. Rowling was revealed to be “Robert Galbraith”, author of “The Cuckoo’s Calling”, the book has shot up bestseller lists worldwide. And suddenly it seems everyone is reading the book.

I personally will *not* be reading or reviewing “The Cuckoo’s Calling”. It’s hard enough for talented new authors to break into the publishing market – Rowling herself proved this. As Robert Galbraith, the book went completely unnoticed. As J. K. Rowling, the book turns into a bestseller. Whether or not it was a publicity stunt, it certainly got the book noticed and plenty of other books (which were maybe just as deserving of doing well) are being ignored because everyone has *got* to read “The Cuckoo’s Calling”.

In addition, it’s a matter of principle with me. The blasted thing’s nearly 500 pages long. I’m sick and tired of epic novels so long that you might as well use them as a doorstop. Even 300 pages is a bit much for me. I prefer books that are concise and to the point instead of extensively padded, and I don’t much relish the prospect of risking 500 pages of my reading time. If I love it, all's well and good, but if I hate it, that's 500 pages of time right out the window. That's like 3 or 4 of Donald E. Westlake's Parker novels.

Finally, it doesn’t *need* my review or my support. With Rowling’s name attached, it’s guaranteed to sell well whether it’s good or not. I have heard it’s a traditional fair-play mystery, and if that’s true, then I applaud Rowling. Who knows, it might even help to re-popularize fair-play detection, which is often treated with scorn in modern day crime fiction. But at the moment, I feel no compulsion to read it, nor does it need a review from me.

This is the same reason you won’t ever see me review the new Dan Brown, James Patterson, Dennis Lehane, or any other guaranteed mega-bestseller. A few years after publication it might become fair game for a review, but not while it’s a hot item, so to speak.

We now resume the regularly-scheduled programming.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Patrick, I don't do reviews as a rule. I wrote about it because I found the book delicious (and had no idea it was longer than usual, because I read it on my Kindle) and because what happened illustrates some of the weirdness of today's publishing without (imho) reflecting badly on the author. I've started dozens of mysteries this year and loved only a handful of them, and Rowling's happened to be one of them.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely love your turns of phrase and your review as well! Your line about the Hell's Angels and cultural skids is wonderful.


Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, it's a shame that you don't do more reviews. You're good at it. I enjoyed this book too and will continue reading if Rowling writes a series.

Patrick said...

Liz, just for the record I have no problem with your liking the book; in fact, I'm glad you liked the book. This was an excellent review, and as a blogger who primarily does reviews I was glad to read this one. I shared that post because it's the only thing I can add to the conversation, as I have decided not to read the book for now due to its length and its "guaranteed best seller" status.

(Although I use a Kindle a lot myself, it's a Kindle Paperwhite and it always tells me how much time I have left reading the book, so I still have a fairly good idea of how long an e-book is.)

caryn said...

I listened to it as an audible on my kindle and loved it. I was surprised by it a bit though as it had been marketed as a thriller which it definitely is not. It is a great detective novel though in the tradition of Hammett and the like. I look forward to more Strike and Robin in the years to come. And yes Liz, that was a very well done review.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Patrick, my Kindle tells me how much time I have left too--but it's only a computer, and it has no idea how fast I read! ;)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

And thanks, Brenda, Caryn, and Sandy. :)

Judy Copek said...

I haven't read the novel yet, but plan to. Our writing group was divided about it, with one person hating it, and another loving it. The "lover" thought the author's use of active verbs and description was brilliant, the nay-sayer found it boring. Isn't it great that we all have different reading tastes?

Diwali said...

The first book I read by Ms. Rowling. I know, i know, there are people there who will want to crucify me for not reading the Harry Potter series, but... Well, what can I say about this one. Hefty (since i was reading an ebook on my cellphone), but an absolute ''unputdownable" one. The way she builds up the story and the end is fabulous with different pieces falling in place in the last conversation like a jigsaw puzzle getting completed... The characters are so nice esp. Strike & Robin. was happy to know that this was the 1st of the series... waiting for the next one with Strike & Robin (full time now) duo at it again!!!