Sunday, November 24, 2013

J.K. Rowling Proves She's Equal to the Masters with The Cuckoo's Calling

When it comes to cuisine, the Brits haven't really given us much worth chewing on compared to France and Italy. But when it comes to the mystery/crime genre in literature, the former great empire is second to none, offering up endless thrillers from the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, household names whose books have sold more than a billion copies worldwide. Should it be her aim, J.K. Rowling has demonstrated with a master's hand that she has what it takes to own the crime fiction throne in the 21st century should she desire it.

Rowling (pronounced "rolling") already proved she knows how to tell a story that keeps readers turning pages. Her Harry Potter books have already sold 400 million copies. Under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith she released a completely different kind of story. That is, different from the books that established her name and made her a small fortune.

The title of the book comes from "A Dirge" by Christina Rosetti. The poem, a lament, sets the tone well for everything that follows. What's more, it signals to readers (or at least those who already know this is Rowling) that her Harry Potter books are part of the past and something more serious lay ahead.

A prologue follows, a quote from quote from Telephus by Lucius Accius, a Roman tragic poet of the second century B.C.: "Unhappy is he whose fame makes his misfortunes famous."

I read these words and thought of the author's fame and her proximity to the lifestyles of the famous. It was the perfect preparatory remark as we waded into the story.

The book's hero/detective is Cormoran Strike, a name that immediately strikes you as a character that will be memorable. Expectations for a good read are stoked from the moment he bursts onto the scene.


They say that one way to get readers to like and root for a character is to hurt him and Rowling hurts him quite a bit before it's over. Before the story even begins Rowling has hurt him. He was wounded in Afghanistan, lost part of his leg, and must where a prosthetic limb. Back in England his detective business is pretty much washed, and the woman he'd given his heart to has left him high and dry.

Into this mix comes Robin, an efficient and helpful secretary from a temp agency, whom Strike can't afford but, as it turns out, can't afford to lose as she's present when that most important client arrives. She's a character we suspect will be coming along in the sequels, should they follow, a 21st century Watson to assist our 21st century Holmes.

The story features a suicide by someone rich and famous, a beautiful supermodel who apparently leapt to her death from her top floor balcony one wintry night. The building is one designed for the exceedingly wealthy, with security guards, a private pool and the other embellishments that wealth affords. The occupants are few, one on each floor. A hard-boiled movie producer and his cokehead wife occupy the second, a superfame hip hop artist Deebie Macc will be moving into the next level, and Lula Landry the upper story. (This is no high-rise.)

The police have already settled the case, proving it had to have been a suicide. Her brother thinks otherwise and presents Strike with a handsome advance to get to the bottom of it.

For the past couple weeks this books served as my evening nightcap, a little reward to look forward to at the end of the day. Fortunately, despite protestations from within, I had the discipline to put it down and get my needed rest. To be honest, it was exceedingly difficult the last few days. I could have easily stayed up all night to finish in one fell swoop, as I had with Mario Puzo's The Godfather when I was young.

Not all the reviews at Amazon.com are five star but I tend to agree with this one: It's hard to put your finger on exactly what it is that makes The Cuckoo's Calling such a terrific new Private Investigator crime fiction debut. On the surface it seems straightforward, unexceptional and unambitious, everything fits the established conventions, there's nothing immediately new that stands out, and yet it's an utterly compelling read with strong characters that wraps you up completely and thrillingly into the investigation.

The pacing was good throughout, and despite the intricate complexities with regard to characters and details, Rowling's Cormoran Strike is a good note taker and processor of information, which he is continually sifting so that the reader has all the clues in hand as he or she goes along.

This whodunnit is not formulaic. All the characters are superbly drawn, and a whole bunch of 'em had motive.

I suspect there will be a film deal on this. I recommend the book.  

1 comment:

adee said...

nicely put through Ed! you suspect, and i hope there will be a film on this with may be a Hanks as the lead character :) it is one of my favorite reads of this year, one which kept me hooked through and through. thanks for the review, i hope others will take note and add one more character to their 'likeability' list.