Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review: 'The Cuckoo's Calling' by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

(Photo Source: Mulholland Books)
From book jacket: "After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.

Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction and delusion known to man.

You may think you know detectives, but you've never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you've never seen them under an investigation like this."

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As everyone knows by now, Robert Galbraith is actually Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who released The Cuckoo's Calling back in April under a pseudonym, and no one knew until last month when someone did some detective work of their own and found out who the true writer was.

What makes this whole situation even more brilliant than just writing under a fake name is she went even so far as to write a bio for Galbraith: "After several years with the Royal Military Police, Robert Galbraith was attached to the SIB (Special Investigative Branch), the plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. The idea for Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who returned to the civilian world."

Because of this, I'm pissed off at the publisher for removing the bio from subsequent printings. Yeah, we all know the real writer now, but c'mon, including things like the bio is all part of the experience. And that's why I've been kicking myself for not immediately buying a copy from the initial print-run, and I can't even buy it used because people are selling them for hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. But I digress...

"How easy it was to capitalize on a person's own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life." -- from The Cuckoo's Calling (page 378)

Getting into the review now (and keep in mind there will be some spoilers throughout, including who the killer is), two things make this book stand out: the writing and the depth/realism of the characters.

Strike is not your ordinary detective. Jo writes him with such detail and we get to know him on a very personal level all throughout the book. There's layers and a depth to him as a character, and that's a huge part of what makes Cuckoo's Calling stand out when it could easily have been thrown in with every other detective/crime novel where you don't could get attached to the characters. His backstory in the army, the prosthetic leg, the ex-fiance, etc.--all of these are things that will most likely carry through into future stories. Obviously, each book I'm sure will focus on a different case, but Strike's own story and struggles will be that constant that remains (along with the substory of Robin and Matthew).

Strike and Robin have great camaraderie--even though she was always expected to leave the secretarial position eventually, it's obvious that because of their connection and how much they enjoyed working with each other that something would happen where she'd end up staying, and it's a delight, though predictable, when that indeed happens in the epilogue.

There are a lot of characters introduced throughout, and many of them could easily get lost in the shuffle to the point where you're going, who was this person again? But Jo makes each stand out so that when they're brought back into the fold, you remember who they are and can picture them again in your mind while reading.

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Death consumes this book, in the same way that death has consumed every single book Jo has written, from all the Harry Potter books to The Casual Vacancy and now The Cuckoo's Calling. She seems obsessed with the concept of death, the idea of what it does to family and friends still living, the contemplation of it there's an afterlife or not. We all know that the death of Jo's mother affected the way she wrote Potter--her mother dying is why that's a major theme.

And while we're on this subject, there's a pattern here: not only does death consume all of her books, but a death has always started out each of them as well. James and Lily Potter died at the start of the Potter series, Barry Fairbrother dies at the start of Casual Vacancy and Lula Landry dies at the start of Cuckoo's Calling.

With both The Casual Vacancy and this new novel, Jo's able to provide more mature stories and present them in a more mature manner that she wasn't able to do before with Harry Potter. (Part of that is the noticeable inclusion of quite a bit of profanity, but it's not distracting and does not take away from the plot at all.) And this is all part of her growing as a writer and being able to explore other areas she wasn't able to before when she confined to writing a fantasy series marketed towards children.

"Strike understood the appeal of gilded cherubs and plaster saints, of gargoyles and Old Testament angels, of gem-set golden crucifixes; anything that might give an aura of majesty of grandeur, a firm promise of an afterlife, or retrospect worth to a life like Rochelle's." -- from The Cuckoo's Calling (page 392)

The final chapter before the epilogue is epic. I love how Strike "throws up" (so to speak) everything about Bristow being the killer and how he went about doing it. He's saying it all in a calm voice, yet when you read it, it comes across as very vivid and dramatic--striking, even (pardon the pun). And I never would've guessed he was the killer. Since this is a whodunnit, I as a reader am constantly thinking, is it her? Is it him? Could this person have been the killer? With how many characters there are, you wonder a lot, and of course Jo sets that up perfectly for you to do so. And there are a couple times where I do in fact wonder if Bristow is the killer, but eventually shooting it down--no, he can't be; he's the one who started this case back up, it can't possibly be him.

Put simply, Jo is a master manipulator, diverting attention away from the real culprit while still leaving just enough clues for those readers who are great at picking these sorts of things up and figuring it out.

When I finished reading the final page, I thought, now what do I do? I really loved going on this journey through The Cuckoo's Calling, and I want more! Based on what's in the epilogue, it doesn't sound like Strike'll be hurting for clients for a while, which perfectly sets it up for there to be additional books in the series. Fortunately, Jo has said she's already written a sequel that's expected to be released next year, and I am beyond excited for that to happen. And I actually may pre-order it when the time comes just like I did with Harry Potter.

I Recommend: The Cuckoo's Calling

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