Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

I first read J.K. Rowling’s adult mystery novel — published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith — in 2013 when it was released. I remember enjoying the novel, despite backlash from naysayers who wanted Rowling to ride the Hogwarts Express for her lifetime. That aside, I don’t remember much else. I later acquired the other two novels in the Cormoran Strike series, but never got around to reading either. With rumors (confirmed by the Queen herself) that Strike would be making a return to the literary world in 2017, I decided it was well past time to reread the first book and finish the other two.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first in a series of detective fiction novels. While I don’t typically seek out crime fiction or detective novels, I can’t resist anything penned by Rowling . . . and I was pleasantly engrossed in this contemporary whodunit book — even the second time around.

Cormoran Strike is a down-and-out private investigator with a mound of debt up to his hairy ears and a failing love life to match. The detective, who is described in such a way as to evoke images of a great hulking brute, is hired by John Bristow, brother to the recently deceased supermodel Lula Landry. The police believe Lula has committed suicide, but Bristow thinks there’s more to her untimely death than that. While Strike juggles his new living arrangements (read: longterm camping in his cramped office), a new temp secretary (Robin, whose own blossoming relationship and new fiance are in stark contrast to Strike’s loneliness), and initial doubts about Bristow’s sanity, the case morphs from something laughable to something with far greater complexity and potential to disrupt more than a few lives.

Strike’s interviews with witnesses reveal excellent character development on the author’s part. True to Rowling form, the novel is packed with a number of key characters — none of whom escape the detective’s scrutiny. Where most novels featuring a large cast fall woefully short of development, leaving the reader confused about who’s who and why they’re important, The Cuckoo’s Calling unravels each individual bit by bit until readers are left with a host of sneaking suspicions based on a number of untrustworthy individuals and a masterfully constructed trail of breadcrumbs.

The Good: Um . . . everything? 🙃 When a novel can be enjoyed a second time around (or a third, or fourth, or fifth . . . ), especially those in the mystery genre, you know you’ve found a gem. This novel is jam-packed with details that serve a purpose. There is no character or encounter or detail that doesn’t serve some end — character development, plot progression, background establishment. As mentioned before, characters are beautifully constructed, each flawed in his or her own way — something writers often overlook or overdo. (Some take character flaws unnecessarily far, resulting in ridiculously unlikeable or relatable individuals; others create maddeningly perfect characters that flawed readers cannot truly connect with. This novel: the perfect blend.) And another merit to this work: its ability to place a lead male character (Strike) next to a young, attractive supporting female (Robin) without forcing some sort of adulterous love triangle. Rowling’s work is truly centered on the mystery surrounding Lula’s death, with no time for deviations into a romantic tryst that has no place in The Cuckoo’s Calling.

The Bad: Honestly, I’ve got no complaints. The epilogue establishes the perfect circumstances for a continuation of the series, which I look forward to reading in the coming weeks.

The Verdict: 4.5/5 stars. This work isn’t life changing, nor will it become a centuries-old classic read and beloved by the masses; but it is great contemporary detective fiction. And that, I can appreciate.

 

Review: The Casual Vacancy

I first read J.K. Rowling’s Casual Vacancy in 2012, when it debuted to little acclaim as her first non-Harry Potter work of adult fiction. Since that time, I’ve read numerous other books, including the Hogwarts series a few more times, and though I couldn’t remember all the minutiae of the novel, I did remember loving it. And I distinctly remember being disappointed in the majority of the literary world, which had cast a surly glance at Rowling’s novel and stamped off in an entirely different direction, without so much as a backward glance.

(Okay — maybe reception for the novel wasn’t that bad . . . but I felt personally slighted on Rowling’s behalf, and I hadn’t even written the book.)

I figured — why not give it another go? I’m all about reading enjoyable books over, and over, and over.

The Casual Vacancy is a novel of painstakingly-crafted layers. From the start, the reader is bombarded with a number of characters and storylines to follow — a feature that I realize is a turn-off to many readers. Admittedly, the first 50-100 pages fostered a love-hate relationship as I read: I became enamored with the raw characters, but found myself frequently flipping back to review some previously released nugget of information about Fats, or Krystal, or Colin. This is where most people give up — they don’t want to struggle to follow the storyline, and I can’t blame readers for that. However, if you trust the writer, you will later thank her for the web of lives she has spun. (See what I did there?)

The story takes place in Pagford, a fictitious parish in England that lives separately but quite irritatingly in the shadow of the neighboring city, Yarvil. Deep-rooted undercurrents of bitterness flow from Pagford to Yarvil, particularly in regards to a small addiction clinic and low-income housing development that Pagfordians no longer want to acknowledge as part of their community. In time, the citizens of Pagford (and Rowling’s readers) ultimately learn (or continue to quash their realizations) that poverty and addiction isn’t all that it seems.

Rowling’s propensity for multi-faceted characters and interwoven storylines is crucial in the development of Casual Vacancy, where no detail goes unnoticed. As I reread the novel, I found myself recalling snippets from the first go-round . . . but still I plowed through the work eagerly, savoring every unforeseen twist of fate that led the strikingly different characters onto one abysmal, downward-spiral of a path. I marveled at Rowling’s ability to so adeptly portray the carefully constructed public personas of her characters, in direct opposition to their usually far-less-desirable home personalities. (Sukhvinder and Colin, for example.)

This story is not Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It is not mythical or magical or even remotely gratifying (in the traditional sense of the word). The tale is not for children, or for people seeking a follow-up to Rowling’s first round of genius.

The Casual Vacancy is, however, a gut-wrenching exploration of morality in politics and community. It is a tale of lives closely linked, despite physical distance or age or economic status. The book is a magnifying glass held to the callous pores of a global society that values the separation of poverty and wealth, young and old, personal responsibility and public burden. Rowling’s novel begs the reader to ponder his or her own code of ethics as she dares to ask:

  • Does responsibility for individual choices/actions ever shift from personal to societal? 
  • Just how far will you go to protect your own interests? 
  • How far does your empathy for mankind extend? 

Rating: 4.5/5 stars – highly recommended.