Friday, February 7, 2014

Book Review: The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (hehehe)

The Cuckoo's Calling 

Written by: Robert Galbraith

Published: 2013

Synopsis: 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.

“How easy it was to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.”

When The Casual Vacancy came out I baulked at reading it because JK Rowling IS my childhood. At the end of the day I'm a pessimist. My immediate reaction was worry "what if it had sucked so bad that I couldn't look at Harry Potter again?"  It was absolutely not fair on her (and by all accounts it sounds like it was a good book) but I wasn't ready to say goodbye to the Boy Who Lived and move on to Rowling's adult fiction. And then JKR solved that problem for me. By releasing The Cuckoo's Calling under a pseudonym (even one that was eventually revealed) I was able to disconnect JKR the wizarding writer with JKR the crime writer enough to not spend the entire time wondering when Harry* would run in and save the day.

It might have taken me a few years to be able to accept JKR as someone other than the woman who wrote Harry Potter but I'm now more than happy to embrace this version of JKR. The Cuckoo's Calling is good. I don't read a lot of crime fiction any more, but it's always been my mum's favourite genre so over my life I've read my fair share of Ruth Rendell, P.D James and Minette Walters. The Cuckoo's Calling measured up to these writers and Cormoran Strike could easily become a new favourite detective of mine.

So as the synopsis describes, Cormoran Strike is a struggling private eye who is basically offered an easy way to pay his rent and keep his debtors of his ass. John Bristow wants Strike to investigate the suicide of his sister, a model with a recent diagnosis of bipolar and history of bad choices. From the start it seems like a pretty obvious suicide (spoiler alert: it's not a suicide) but Strike takes the job seriously - even if he's just doing it for the large cash advance. The investigation is very much at the forefront of this book but it's also something of an origin story. As Strike delves into the case, parallels with his own life and upbringing become apparent and add a more personal angle to the investigation. It's actually very smartly entwined, never diverging from the case in hand but setting up story points for future books**.

Cormoran is a fairly run of the mill detective, he's grouchy, threatening and has pretty dark moods but the back-story helps differentiate him from the hundreds of others that came before him. I couldn't help but imagine him as a younger Mad Eye Moody (Strike also only has the one leg) which probably coloured my enjoyment of his grouchiness and detective strategies (CONSTANT VIGILANCE) but that's hardly a bad thing. It also meant I imagined him looking a little like David Tennant thanks to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire*** and that DEFINITELY isn't a bad thing. The personal touches aren't all good though, I found the B story about his (now) ex-fiancĂ©e baffling.  I don't think JKR is great at writing romantic relationships  (*cough* Harry and Ginny *cough cough*) but this one was just so shoe-horned in - at no point did I understand why Cormoran would be intoxicated by this absolute cow of a woman. She keeps describing Charlotte as beautiful but also showing her to be a vindictive and compulsive liar who plays with Cormoran's affections. I had no idea if I was supposed to understand why they spent 15 years on and off together or if I was supposed to think, as I did, that it sounded like a rubbish relationship. I just hope it isn't something that drags on in future books, I have no desire for soap opera level relationship drama in my mystery fiction thank you very much.

While Charlotte was a monster Robin, the secretary/sidekick, was pretty fantastic. She signs on as a temp at the start of the book who has a pretty awkward meeting with Strike (it involves nearly dying and having her boob grabbed) but is instantly attracted to the private detective life. As she finds ways to stay on longer than her temp position necessitates she becomes almost a protective sister to Strike while he's at his most vulnerable (essentially homeless after Charlotte kicked him out) and plays an important role in helping solve the crime. The relationship between the two is set up so nicely I can only hope it continues to develop as such and doesn't turn into a relationship somewhere down the line. It's not often that you get to read about a man and woman who accept and respect each without wanting to smoosh their bodies together. My fingers are crossed that JKR manages to balance it as well as Elementary balances the relationship between Sherlock and Joan, or as JKR herself balanced the friendship between Harry and Hermione (pre-JKR stomping on all our hearts obv).

The book is a fairly formulaic but fun detective story which really excels in the areas JKR has always excelled in - character and world building. True this is just regular old London and not fancy-hidden-magic London but she really brings the place to life. Since I haven't been to London perhaps it's not at all realistically depicted but she brings a London, full of colourful people and cafes and fancy clubs, to life within the pages. There is also a brilliant monologue at the end when Strike "catches" the bad guy which screams of Harry's confrontation against Voldemort in Deathly Hollows, she obviously loves having smart protagonists proudly tell the villain how stupid they are and the multitude of ways they screwed up and gotten themselves caught. It's extremely satisfying to read and if I hadn't already know JKR was the author it probably would have set off flashing lights and sirens in my head immediately. I tried really hard not to compare everything in this book to Harry Potter, but when you know that series as well as I (and most of you) do it's impossible to completely separate them. This is a brilliant adult mystery novel but there's no escaping the past. HP provided JKR with a brilliant place to hone her skills and develop her voice so there'll always be a touch of magic in her writing.

*Thanks to some genius idea of Hermione's obviously.

**I assume there will be future books since it's listed as Comoran Strike #1 on GoodReads.

***I don't really know why I imagined him looking like Crouch Jr, maybe because that was the only younger man associated with that character or maybe I just look for any opportunity to imagine David Tennant in roles.


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