Sunday, October 26, 2014

Book Review: The Cuckoo's Calling

It's a testament to just how enormous a fortune J. K. Rowling has accrued for her publishers that they were willing to allow her to publish The Cuckoo's Calling under a pseudonym. Naturally, as soon as the true authorship of the debut novel of the new Cormoran Strike detective series was made public, the book catapulted onto best-seller lists and made the pots of money that any book by the author of the Harry Potter series is bound to make. For Rowling, it was an opportunity to be reviewed on her own merits, as a writer of detective fiction, and without any reference to her phenomenal popular success, her status as a billionaire, or the various forms of pettiness that seem to attach themselves to her work, either in anger that the new book is not related to the Wizarding world or in ill temper that she attained a form of unprecedented literary success that will most likely never be repeated.

The Cuckoo's Calling received very positive reviews indeed. As Robert Galbraith, Rowling was able to shed the mammoth critical bulk left by Harry Potter, a critical legacy that sabotaged the reputation of The Casual Vacancy (not that it wasn't a best-seller - but it's been widely and unfairly derided and dismissed). Both a fascinating experiment in critical reputation and an incredible concession to Rowling, the decision to back the pseudonymic ruse gave the first Cormoran Strike novel a fair chance to be judged on its own merits.

In order to be clear about my own point of view, I will say that my sole reason for seeking out The Cuckoo's Calling was my love of Rowling's writing. I'm an unabashed fan of Harry Potter, but I've been delighted by her forays into other genres and genuinely admired and liked The Casual Vacancy. I would never have picked up The Cuckoo's Calling otherwise, though I'm very glad I did. I rarely read detective fiction, crime fiction, or any other mystery subgenre, and when I do, I'm drawn to older incarnations, the Victorians, like Wilkie Collins, G. K. Chesterton, and Arthur Conan Doyle, or twentieth century novelists, like Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith. Aside from a general preference for older literature, I'm simply not terribly interested in criminality, one of the ugliest facets of humanity's selfishness. On a deeper level, I do not feel that plot is particularly important as long as characters are compelling, and the mystery genre tends to favor plot over character. All that being said, my review of The Cuckoo's Calling is inevitably tinged by a lack of larger literary context. I would find it difficult to name any contemporary mystery writers. Thus, I forgo any attempt to fit the novel into the current mystery landscape.

The detective of the series, Cormoran Strike, seems poised for a good run, though he's unlikely to prove very enticing to Hollywood. Strike is described as a big burly man, not handsome, with "pubey" hair. He's also missing a leg, a result of a tour in Afghanistan where he was with the military police.  He's hired by distraught lawyer John Bristow to investigate whether his glamorous model sister's alleged suicide wasn't a murder, a case he takes half out of pity and half out of necessity (business has not been booming). Though we're granted partial access to his thoughts, Strike remains rather enigmatic, though one imagines his character will develop with the series. Strike's assistant, Robin, is perhaps a simpler and more clearly imaginable character, a snappy Girl Friday, but she also needs development.

One of the most surprising strengths of the novel is the way in which Strike's disability is portrayed. As a person with a limb difference myself, I tend to be hyper-sensitive to the way disabled characters are portrayed in literature and it's rare to find such a realistic, un-condescending and un-pitying depiction. Strike's attitude towards his missing leg is free of the sort of histrionics most people without disabilities seem to imagine is typical of those with disabilities; rather he's irritated that his prosthesis needs to be refitted and is causing him pain and frustrated by the pity parties and unnecessary cheerings-up being thrown at him ("I couldn't even see you limping when you arrived. Isn't it amazing what they can do these days? I expect you can run faster now than you could before!") - in other words, his disability is portrayed as a mundane reality that is something of a pain in the neck (leg? no?), but requires no gushing sympathy. This aspect of the novel endeared it to me greatly.

Each section of the novel opens with a rather overly portentous quote from a classical Latin source, usually Virgil, not a device I particularly liked, though it's unobtrusive. Like the later Harry Potter novels, the first chapter has omniscient narration and lays out a fundamental scene, the catalyst for future events, while the protagonist is not present. In this case, the stage is set outside of a posh London apartment building where the body of model Lula Landry lies on the pavement in the snow. The rest of the novel stays with Strike and, less frequently, with Robin, as they interview witnesses, collect evidence, and solve the case. The pacing is fairly slow, much slower than in The Casual Vacancy, but Rowling is an adept at both pithy dialogue and subtly planting clues (and red herrings). In the Harry Potter novels, hints at what is to come, information that will prove decidedly handy later, revelatory hidden details, abound; one thinks of the appearance of Slytherin's locket in the fifth book or even Sirius Black's motorbike, which appears in the first few pages of book one. This technique allows Rowling to unfold the mystery (which can most likely be deciphered by the meticulously attentive reader) without giving us full access to Strike's reasoning and yet still write an ending that packs a punch. Rowling is a master of complex structure, peeling back the layers of the narrative for the reader, fitting the various puzzle pieces of the plot neatly but not too much so.

The Cuckoo's Calling isn't just about a suicide-or-murder investigation; it also examines, with an acidically tinged satire, celebrity, race, money, class, and how they all intersect. The extreme selfishness and self-absorption that fame and wealth can, and very frequently do, cultivate are evident in many of Lula's associates: her pill-addled and possessive mother, her heroin-addicted actor boyfriend, her nosy gossip of a make-up artist, the proprietorial fashion designer who calls her his muse. To Rowling's credit, few of these characters are really caricatures (though a criminally selfish movie producer is on the verge) and morality is not determined by class.Though not a masterwork, The Cuckoo's Calling is a highly entertaining, labyrinthine puzzle of a mystery, and promises to be only the first of many fine adventures with Cormoran Strike.

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