Sunday, October 20, 2013

Book Review: The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling is a novel by a "Robert Galbraith," who turns out to be none other than J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. I don't know the reason why she choose a pseudonym, but it could be to distance herself from the hype and popularity of the Harry Potter franchise. Her name is now so firmly etched with that series that it can cause problems when writing anything other than that. Although I haven't read her other work, The Casual Vacancy, from what I understand a lot of people are surprised to read it and realize it wasn't another Harry Potter book. She certainly isn't the only author that has pseudonyms, though, so it's a common thing.

The Cuckoo's Calling is a fairly standard detective story about an investigation of a famous celebrities' death. The main character, detective Cormoran Strike, has to seek out witnesses and suspects to see if he can piece together the events of that confusing evening. Was it suicide or murder? And if murder, then who is the culprit?



Overall Impression
One of the reasons I love reading science fiction and fantasy is that as a reader I get to try and figure out what the world is all about. I have to say I also enjoy detective stories because, while the world is not magical, I still get to put clues together and see if I can figure out the puzzle before the characters do. A good detective novel is then one that keeps the mystery just out of reach so that you get it just when everything is revealed. In my opinion, Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling) has managed this in The Cuckoo's Calling. Cormoran Strike is no Sherlock Holmes, but he's a cool and interesting detective in his own right and really helps drive the story.

Plot
This is a pretty ordinary detective story. We have the death of Lula Landry told in part in the prologue and then we meet the private eye and the investigation begins. The curious nature of the case, however, is that it happened 3 months prior and involved a huge celebrity. Hence, there is plenty of media coverage on the case and Cormoran Strike is tasked with one thing: proving that the suicide was in fact a murder. Unfortunately, most the evidence will be old by now, so Strike has to rely primarily on interviewing witnesses and connecting the dots to see if he can find what the initial investigation missed. Don't be fooled into thinking the whole story is all interviews, it's actually fairly fast paced and well executed. Even the interviews have an edge of tension in them as the detective is trying to squeeze out honest details on the event surrounding Lula's death.

Characters
The story follows mainly detective Cormoran Strike. We do have his temporary secretary, Robin, as a prominent secondary character with several viewpoint chapters. However, despite being a very clever sidekick, she is never developed as fully as Strike is. Furthermore, in the few chapters were both Strike and Robin have major roles, the author flits from own point of view the other too often. The story is told primarily in third-person limited, but during these instances it feels like the author has switched to third-person omniscient. The problem arises when it's not clear whose thoughts we are reading as the changes are a little too abrupt (sometimes within the same paragraph) and the voices not distinguished enough for us to tell in many occasions.

These two details (the lightly characterized Robin and the shifting viewpoints) are the only drawbacks in the story (and minor at that). The rest of the characters serve as valid witnesses, suspects, or supporting players to the crime and we can marvel at the deft skills of Strike at work as he manages to piece together all the pieces of the puzzle. His work efficiency contrasts nicely with his personal situation, which is far from ideal: a missing leg from an injury at war and a rough breakup with his fiancee. This all makes him a very cool, yet relatable character.

Setting / World Building
The story takes place in modern-day London and it's surroundings. Nothing fantastical at all and, having never been to London, I can't comment on it's accuracy. For me, it just felt like any big city. The presence of celebrities and paparazzi reminds me of Los Angeles (not that I was ever involved in that world!) so I could certainly believe the hype that surrounds these sorts of people.

Final Thoughts
This was a pretty solid detective story. Nothing too extraordinary or fancy about it, yet it still worked. The author has created a flawed, yet credible detective that helps drive the narrative along, both with his personal story and with his investigation. I'm certain we'll see more Cormoran Strike novels in the future. It's no Harry Potter, but Rowling has shown she has what it takes to tell compelling stories even without the childhood wonder of magic.

I personally haven't read that many detective books, so I don't know how predictable or repetitive this particular story is. If you have any recommendations of good detective crime novels, feel free to leave them in the comment section below. Bonus points if it has magic or futuristic technology!

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