Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Book Review: The Cuckoo's Calling

Crime is a genre I don't read enough. I few years back I read a "Year of Crime", 20 books from different writers across the genre, and found a lot to like there, but never really found too much time to go back. Its got it's own beats and conceits, cliches that have broken into the wider culture, and ones that haven't, and the "detective" figure has had an impact in both SF and Fantasy over the years, although often a very specific model of it. So naturally I'd never heard of Robert Galbraith, who'd written a moderately well read, but well reviewed first novel, The Cuckoo's Calling, until it was revealed that he was, in fact, the pseudonym of much better known author J K Rowling. I can see why she did it too, after The Casual Vacancy - not perfect, by any means, but certainly interesting and at time very ambitious - got more than it's fair share of snippy reviews that seemed to drip some contempt for a "childrens author" writing "adult books". 

So, The Cuckoo's Calling is a London-set detective mystery that starts with the presumed suicide of a glamourous and successful young model. A single unreliable witness claims she heard a fight, and cried murder, but that was soon retracted after her story proved impossible, and no hard evidence for any intruder was found. A tragedy played out in the media spotlight, case closed. Three months later, the victims grieving brother, following his own obsessive suspicions, hires down-on-his-luck Private Eye Cormoron Strike to investigate on his behalf. Strike is aided only by his wits, contacts and temporary Secretary, Robin, who is young, in love and enthusiastic, everything Strike isn't.

At first glance there is a lot of archetypes at work here but the secret is how they are put together. Yes, the beaten down PI is a heavily used Trope, but Strike remains an interesting character due to some deft work on his background and general demeanor.  Robin, sat in the also traditional role of the character who needs things explaining to her, beings a lot to the table to, someone who is, in her own way, highly resourceful, and rooting her characters conflicts around her job hunt and fiancee removes any tedious expectation of love interest between the two leads. As ever in detective fiction, many of the rest of the cast remain pencil sketches, but Rowling has always been good at speedy characterisation and this is used to great effect here. 

Of course the story lives and dies on it's central mystery and here it's more "modern procedural" than "traditional puzzle", as new information trickles in, linearly leading Strike further and further through the vacuous (and sharply observed) London fashion and media scene. It's got a neat resolution that I didn't quite see coming, and does tie up well, and remains character focused throughout. Some of the social commentary that comes through The Casual Vacancy also shows up here, and Rowling is keen to make sure we register the gap between the indulged lives that many of these characters lead and the lives of those that cater for, and look to them. 

The other thing that it shares with The Casual Vacancy is a slight sag about two-thirds of the way, as if the transistion between all the nice, character-focused setup and the end-game, causes the book's gearbox to grind a little. But it's a relatively minor point in an otherwise very enjoyable story. I enjoyed it so much, to be honest, I went straight onto the next one, and you can't really speak better praise for any series than that.