Thursday, September 5, 2013
The Cuckoo’s Calling: A Review
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.
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.