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July 2014
The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith - Sphere, 2013 (Kindle edition)
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After wrestling with the dry complexities of Spinoza's Ethics for several weeks, and having - rather remarkably - run out of books to read, I felt it was time for something light and fluffy. So it seemed an appropriate moment to find out what J.K. Rowling has been up to since the end of Harry Potter. Well, she hasn't been working on her writing style. I tried a taster of A Casual Vacancy because Ayckbourn-style black comedy is usually up my street, but bounced off the lumpen prose and unmemorable characters of the first few pages (if it improves, do let me know). The Cuckoo's Calling seemed more promising. I know I have inveighed against poor writing in genre fiction in the past, but truth be told, a clumsy style is less of a problem when there is a compelling plot or an interesting world to explore. And Rowling is not a bad writer, merely an inelegant one. You aren't brought up short by solecisms, but simply by the thought that a particular sentence could have been phrased better. Well, you know what? This is a good detective novel, not startlingly original but with interesting characters, a believable setting and an intriguing plot. And if it were not for one fatal flaw, it would be a great one.

The victim is Lula Landry, a famous fashion model with drug problems who fell to her death from the third floor window of her apartment on a freezing January night. Everyone thinks that it was suicide caused by depression - except her brother John and a neighbour, Tansy Bestigui, an unreliable cokehead who claimed to hear an argument just before the fatal fall despite being two floors down in a very well sound-proofed apartment. And there are other oddities. Lula had a very public row with her ex-boyfriend, the musician and drug addict Evan Duffield, the afternoon before her death. Two figures were seen running from the scene of the crime on CCTV. And a US rapper, Deeby Macc, was supposed to be taking up residence in the flat below Lula's that night, but didn't turn up. It is clear that Lula's death is more ambiguous than it at first appears.

Or so thinks Cormoran Strike, the one-legged ex-army private investigator whom John hires to investigate. Strike's private life is a bit of a mess - he has walked out on his rich but serially unfaithful girlfriend Charlotte and is reduced to living out of his kitbag in his office - but fortunately his latest temp, Robin Ellacott, is remarkably competent and interested in the case. A team is forged.

In some respects it is remarkable that Rowling was not outed before she was. The names alone have her distinctive Dickensian improbability. There is also the richness of the secondary characters. Even if they only have a walk-on part, each is memorable and well delineated, from Kieran Kolovas-Jones, the chauffeur who wants to be a movie star, to Lechsinka the matter-of-fact East European cleaner, to Lady Yvette Bristow, John's and Lula's formidable mother, who is dying of cancer. It is striking how the characters cover the full range of British society in a way that very few novels attempt these days.

I also liked the handling of the relationship between Robin and Cormoran. It is cool and professional - Robin spends the whole book on the point of finishing her temp position - and the obvious romantic rabbit hole is avoided by making Robin freshly engaged and Strike an emotional mess following his breakup. Obviously things will probably happen in later books - genre convention more or less demands it - but the subversion of the competent and logical male detective and his more emotional female assistant was pleasing.

It is a shame, therefore, about the fatal flaw. It would be too spoilery to discuss it, so suffice to say that Rowling breaks what I consider to be the first rule of whodunnit plotting and as a result the ending did not work for me. Still, the sleuthing that preceded it was more than pleasantly acceptable and Strike and Robin are characters with whom I would be happy to spend more time. She may not like it, but Rowling's undoubted talents really do seem to manifest most effectively within the constraints of genre fiction.

Date: 2015-04-08 04:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'm now intrigued as to what you consider the first rule of whodunnits. I think I'd pick "the murderer should be somebody we know about", as Jane Austen pointed out in Northanger Abbey. ('Emma' shows what a totally outstanding detective writer Austen could have been).

The other possible first rule is that it should be possible for the reader to solve the murder - all the information should be there - and perhaps that encompasses the rule I put in above.


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