Friday, July 8, 2016

Book Review - Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike Book 1) by Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling
Published by: Mulholland Books
Publication Date: April 30th, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 464 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Cormoran Strike's day starts in free fall. Charlotte and him have been on and off for years. After he returned wounded from Afghanistan she walked right into the hospital and back into his life. But this breakup is different. For the first time it was Cormoran's decision. This signals the end. And at his little office, now his home, if things don't pick up this will also signal the end of his career as a PI. He has one client and one stalker and had hoped to have no assistant, having given the previous temp the heave-ho. But in walks Robin, his new temp, which he can't afford. But then in walks a lifeline. A new client. A new client who has money and is willing to pay double. Cormoran knew John Bristow's brother Charlie when they were little. Charlie died in a tragic accident over the Easter holidays and Cormoran viewed it as yet another loss in a life full of them. John has come to Cormoran because his other sibling has died and John won't accept the police verdict of suicide. He needs Cormoran's help.

Lula Landry was a world famous supermodel when she plunged to her death on a cold night in January. Even Cormoran had heard about the tragedy. Another shooting star that burned too bright and died too young. It's almost baffling that the myopic man in front of him was related to the angelic Lula. But Lula, like John and Charlie, was adopted. Cormoran feels a kinship with John over his unconventional family, Cormoran being the bastard of a famous rock musician with famous siblings strewn all over the world. John's belief in Lula convinces Cormoran to take the case. He is soon shoved into the shadowy world of celebrities and their hangers-on. Where paparazzi blind you with their flashes at every chance. This is a world Cormoran's siblings know well, one he has always studiously avoided. But the deeper he digs he starts to have the same conviction as John. Lula didn't jump, she was pushed. Which means there's a killer out there who might strike again...

For someone who doesn't just love, but adores the Harry Potter books as much as I, it's kind of shocking to admit that I've never read any of Rowling's other books. Oh, don't get me wrong, I have them all ready to read, The Casual Vacancy, the next two Cormoran Strike books after this one, I've just never gotten around to them. I think there's a bit of the fear of the next. When you love an author who has written a series the first time they step outside that comfort zone, be it your comfort zone or theirs, it's a seismic shift. It's something entirely new. That new could be good or it could be bad, but one thing is certain, it will be different. Which I think is one of the reasons that Rowling tried to step back and release The Cuckoo's Calling under a pen name. She was harshly judged for The Casual Vacancy and she just wanted to write a book to write a book and avoid the PR machine that would swing into action. In fact I actually had this book on my "to be read" list long before it was revealed who the true author is. But reading this book I was struck by one thing, I think you NEED to know that Rowling is the author to get the full impact.

What I mean by this is that the celebrity of Lula has an extra punch because Rowling wrote her story. Rowling is, let's face it, the most famous author in the world. Just the hype building up to a play set in the world of Harry Potter is causing mass hysteria. If an unknown author had actually written The Cuckoo's Calling the viciousness of the paparazzi couldn't have been as viscerally real and accurate. You the reader get that Rowling is exorcising some of her demons, giving the press a little bit back of what they've done to her over the years. This isn't some imagined horror of what the press could do, but what they have actually done, and done to her. The sad fact is this practice continues. We still have paparazzi hounding people because their readers just have to know every detail of famous people's lives. To me, this world that Cormoran is shoved into in his investigation, a world where paparazzi can hound celebrities to death, is what grounds this book. This is what I connected to. Would I have connected to it as strongly had I read this without knowing Rowling had written it? I don't think I would, because I think I would have doubted the veracity. I know that this world exists, but it's something more to read about it from someone who has experienced it firsthand.

Yet beyond this grounding I was expecting something more. The Cuckoo's Calling was billed as a Neo-Noir. Hence I thought the book would be dark and mysterious. The book isn't. And that's letting you down easy. Yes, it has the building blocks of Noir. We have the down and out protagonist with a bad history with women, or in this case, a woman. We have the starlet who died too young. We have the world of celebrities and it's seamy underbelly. Heck, I almost sound like I'm writing a loose outline for my favorite movie, L.A. Confidential. But it just falls short. The sheer number of cigarettes smoked can't ever bridge the gap between what it is and what it wants to be. Noir needs that something more. We connect to Cormoran, but we don't really get true insight into his mind and thought processes. This I think is where it fails on the Noir front. We understand who he is and what he is like, but not really what he's thinking, what he's figuring out. There's just a void where we need to connect to him on a visceral level, to key into his feelings, his ups and downs, and instead we like him, but we just don't quite get him. Noir is never about liking, it's about understanding.

This in fact is the fatal flaw of the entire book. While the way the characters are written give us people we like and make them real in our eyes there's just too much character development. Now this makes sense for a long series, because the groundwork is being laid and it's best to have a solid foundation, BUT for the initial outing it's so overlong that the mystery suffers at the expense of making these characters fully rounded human beings. There needed to be a balance between character and forward momentum. I am honest when I say I fully love Robin and her lifelong desire to basically be Nancy Drew and Cormoran and the complete mess he is because of his childhood and his injuries, both physical and mental, but this needed to be either trimmed down or balanced by the case of Lula. I picked up this book expecting a twisty-turny murder mystery, instead I got a really well written character study. In fact a lot of my friends think it's sacrilegious the rating I gave this book, but it's how I felt. If I adjust my expectations for the rest of the series, perhaps I'll come to love these books, but my love of the characters can't forgive the narrative all it's flaws.

And boy does this narrative have it's flaws. More than any other genre mystery books have to have a constant forward momentum. That desire to keep turning the page long into the night until you're shocked that there are birds chirping and the sun is actually cresting the horizon. Now I'm not going to be all superior and say that I had figured out the mystery in five minutes and the solution was a foregone conclusion, because I actually didn't. I had one key aspect early on, but by the time that Rowling actually planted the final two pieces of evidence that were essential to solving the death of Lula I no longer cared. I was bored by the mystery. The plot just limped along while the characters were luxuriated with detail. As time went on it got harder and harder for me to pick up this book because I just didn't care anymore. Obviously Cormoran and Robin lived to fight another day, seeing as there's another book, and they were all that mattered to me, so why should I care about the murderer? Why should I pick up to book again? The final thirty pages took me almost two days to get through because it didn't seem pressing. For me to willingly put aside a book... right there is the answer as to why I thought it was just meh.


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