Friday, 5 September 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

I wish I knew what I thought of this book before I knew it was written by J.K. Rowling. It was obviously important to her to fly under the radar, at least for a while. And my reaction is undoubtedly coloured by that knowledge. The first fifty pages felt a little forced, compared to the rest of the book, which flowed on smoothly from about that point. If I hadn't known, would I have found those first 50 pages less to my taste? Would I have given the book less of a chance?

We'll never know, I guess. But in the end, whether or not it was influenced by my knowledge of who the author was, I thought this was a very solid mystery. I am looking forward to the second one, and have recommended this first one to my mother and mother-in-law, both heavy mystery readers.

So while I did find the first fifty pages or so a bit jarring to read, it settled down into nicely readable prose, which is something Rowling tends to excel at. It's not overly literary, it's not cloying, it's relatively straightforward and enjoyable and does not call attention to itself.

More to the point, Rowling also weaves in quite a bit about class in English society into the narrative, although not, obviously, to the degree that she did in The Casual Vacancy, and her commentary on the topic is always fascinating. It's this presence behind everything, and she is thoughtful in how she pulls it out, how people react to others based on perceived class, how it continues to operate in society.

Right, the mystery. And the detective. Those two vital elements in any mystery series. A supermodel falls to her death from her balcony. The police rule it suicide. Her grieving brother believes it was murder, probably by her junkie on-again/off-again boyfriend. He hires detective Cormoran Strike to investigate.

So, the detective? Other than the fact that my brain wanted to supply a concluding "t" to his first name every single time? He's a war veteran, missing part of a leg. He's the illegitimate son of a famous 70s rocker who wants nothing to do with him. His beautiful upper-class fiancee has just broken up with him. Again. He has few private detecting jobs.

Luckily for him, the temp agency sends Robin to be his new office assistant, and she is thrilled at the idea of working for a detective, although her fiance is not. Rowling strikes a good note here between having Robin be smart and capable, but not having her immediately become a brilliant detective. She helps out in important ways, but she's not a Watson, nor is she an unbelievable natural mind at the detective trade. Much of it seems to be learned.

Strike takes the case because he badly needs the money, although he believes that the model probably did commit suicide. Slowly, he changes his mind. I won't, of course, even hint at who the killer is. It's not a bad solution to the whole matter, though.

But it's the minutiae that shine here, the slogging through the days, the recalcitrance of witnesses, and cushioning of money. Most of the people involved have the power to decline to participate, and many do. It's no mistake Strike gets to talk to the police, the model's driver and the building security guard before he does the lawyers, the film producers, or the fashion designers. Those people all have people meant to bar access.

I can't say this was a revelation. It's certainly nowhere near on a par with Louise Penny, who I think is the best mystery writer writing today. And perhaps for a long time. But it's fun, it's solid, and it's satisfying. That's enough.

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