Thursday, May 27, 2021

Book 286: The Cuckoo's Calling


"Her bloodshot eyes squinted at nothing; she seemed momentarily mesmerized, lost in contemplations of sums so vast and dazzling that they were beyond her ken, like an image of infinity. Merely to speak of them was to taste the power of money, to roll dreams of wealth around in her mouth."

Dates read: January 1-6, 2019

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

I can't imagine the pressure of being the author of a wildly successful and beloved series and getting ready to write your next book. The expectations are so high. People already have a set opinion about who you are and what you do as a writer, and are extremely attached to that opinion. Writing a book that's solid but not sensational means getting pilloried, having your whole career questioned. Anything less than magic creates its own news cycle.

For what it's worth, I thought The Casual Vacancy was good. Not great, flawed, but good. But from the reaction to it on the internet, you'd have thought J.K. Rowling followed up Harry Potter with a total dud. So I understand why, when she started her next project, she opted for a pseudonym. It's under "Robert Galbraith" that she's publishing her next series, mystery novels set in England starring a private detective called Cormoran Strike. In The Cuckoo's Calling, the first entry, we meet Strike, the illegitimate son of a rock star and a groupie, and veteran whose service in Afghanistan cost him part of a leg. We also meet his brand-new temp assistant, the young, intelligent, and newly-engaged Robin Ellacot. She's only supposed to stay for a week, as Strike can't afford an assistant and she's interviewing for "real jobs", but when she proves capable as a new case is brought into the office, she winds up staying on. The new case is a doozy, too: a young supermodel called Lula Landry has fallen from her balcony to her death, ruled a suicide, but her brother wants to prove that she was murdered.

The investigation takes Strike inside the worlds of the wealthy and high fashion, neither of which he fits into with any grace. He conducts his investigation methodically and thoroughly, interviewing her neighbors, the upper-class white mother that adopted the biracial Lula, her designer and model friends, shopgirls who saw her the day she died. When one of his contacts, a poor girl from a rehab group, turns up dead, Strike knows he's on the trail of someone truly dangerous. With Robin's help, he draws a trap for his suspect...while dealing with his own personal drama, like a sister he loves but struggles to connect with and the breaking of his engagement to a beautiful, unpredictable socialite.

I don't often read mysteries...the genre just doesn't do much for me. If it's too simple, I'm bored, but if it's convoluted, I get annoyed. This mystery wasn't much of the exception I was hoping it might be. I followed the interviews one-by-one, and while I can say that I never guessed the outcome, I also didn't quite buy it. The murderer's motives never really fell into place for me. It also just feels like the first in a series. There are plenty of allusions to both Cormoran and Robin's personal lives and issues, and they're given a little bit of context, but it seems clear that they're meant to be fleshed out properly with later books.

That being said, though, Rowling's writing is as good as ever. Both of the primary characters are vivid, and I enjoyed the non-romantic relationship she built between them. As to be expected, the world-building is also a high point. Rowling's London feels like neither the brightly burnished version we see on tourism ads nor Dickensian in its roughness. It feels like a modern, cosmopolitan city, with wealth and class and race divides and pockets of ease mixed alongside areas you might not want to walk alone at night. The storyline was engaging enough, for what it was, but I'm not much of an expert on what makes a good mystery. This is a promising series debut, and I'm interested to see how it develops!

One year ago, I was reading: The Space Between Us

Two years ago, I was reading: Midnight's Children

Three years ago, I was reading: The Sky Is Yours

Four years ago, I was reading: The Panopticon

Five years ago, I was reading: Shylock Is My Name

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