I’m a little late to the party here, because although I followed all the revelations* about J.K Rowling writing a mystery novel under a pen name (Robert Galbraith), I just now got around to actually reading the book. Which was a shame, because The Cuckoo’s Calling is really a cracker of a mystery novel.
I like mysteries and have read a trillion of them, but I tend to get disillusioned with how much they blend together. Yes, I realize that most mysteries are going to have a formula, but I have read enough “death in a quiet English village” books and “death in a major American city” books to last me a lifetime. Rowling’s book may not stray far from the formula, but it is so well done that it definitely doesn’t blend in with anything else–it has it’s own distinct voice and feeling. The basic story is that a down-on-his-luck PI in modern-day London is asked to investigate the death of celebrity. The police have ruled it a suicide, but her brother is convinced it was murder. So far, so formulaic. But the details and the characterizations in this story are fab. All of the characters are crisply drawn–my favorite was the PI’s temp assistant, a great, smart female character who is not the typical genre girl assistant. The details about life in London make the city feel like a character itself, and the mystery was twisty enough that I didn’t see the solution coming.
As I was reading the book I was asking myself, as I’m sure everyone was, whether I would have ever guessed it was by Rowling without being told. And the answer is . . . of course not. It’s a mystery novel written for adults and it’s not like any of the characters suddenly start casting spells. But once you know she’s the author, there are definitely elements that feel familiar. Like, the character names have a Harry Potter-ish ring to them: the murder victim is Lula Landry, and the PI’s name is Cormoran Strike. And, as many reviewers have pointed out, the plot leads to a lot of musings about celebrity culture and the paparazzi; one has to imagine that Rowling’s thoughts on this come from personal experience.
While the book wraps the central mystery up quite nicely, lots of threads are left hanging with the characters, who clearly have lots more to do. I found myself curious about how the PI would handle his disastrous love life, and whether the assistant would get do some real sleuthing of her own. Which is convenient, since the second Cormoran Strike novel, The Silkworm, was just released, and I am definitely looking forward to it.
Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Twisty, modern mystery
You might also like: Case Histories, or any of the Jackson Brodie mysteries by Kate Atkinson, or the Duncan Kincaid mysteries by Deborah Crombie. Both of these are series set in today’s Great Britain, and both have an of-the-moment, edgy feel. I’ve also heard fabulous things about Denise Mina’s books, but I have been defeated by my to-read list and haven’t gotten to these yet–someone else should read some and report back!
*I know that Rowling is doing perfectly fine and there’s really no need for me to feel sorry for her, since I’m sure she’s perfectly happy somewhere counting her piles of money, but it does seem sad that it’s apparently impossible for her to trust the people around her with even a fairly unimportant sort of secret. How can one hope to have any sort of normal life like that? As Bill Murray says, “I always like to say to people who want to be rich and famous, try being rich first. See if that doesn’t cover most of it.”
This sounds a lot better than I had expected when I heard that Rowling had written an adult novel. I think I need to try it.
I think you’d like it! I haven’t read The Casual Vacancy, so I don’t know how I’d feel about a straight-up literary novel, but I think she’s got the mystery thing.
I’m just now reading The Cuckoo’s Calling, after your recommendation, so I can’t comment on it yet, though I’m really enjoying it so far.
But your Bill Murray quote reminded me of a story that my dad told me about Bill Gates. Gates went golfing and his caddy figured that he was going to get a huge tip for the day, but Gates just gave him a normal sized tip and he was disappointed, but then a couple days later, he got notified that his student loans had been entirely paid off. And, after I got over my initial unease that, if true, Bill Gates could get access to random people’s student loans, I also started to feel sorry for him, because I bet everyone around him almost figures they’ve hit the jackpot for just doing their job because he is expected to throw around so much money just because he has it.
(And then I started to feel bad for even sympathizing with a millionaire since so many of them whine that everyone is trying to take their money away, which I really don’t believe happens to all those bankers. No one is anticipating that Mitt Romney is going to leave them a giant tip. Okay, I had to put that last qualifier in there to retain my proper socialist standing.)