The Cuckoo’s Calling

9780316206846_p0_v3_s260x420Would I have read Robert Galbraith’s detective mystery – The Cuckoo’s Calling – if I had not known J.K. Rowling was hiding behind the words? Probably not.  But having loyally followed her from Harry Potter to her less stellar adult book, Casual Vacancy, I curiously wanted to know what this prolific author would do with a mystery.

The storyline follows a familiar formula. The grizzled war hero detective, Comoran Strike, and his trusty secretary/assistant, beautiful and young Robin, are on the case of a murder that the police have closed as a suicide. The victim is a model with a past and a shady boyfriend.  As the duo fend off red herrings, other characters and the setting offer a distinctive British flavor.

Galbraith/Rowling reveals the clues through endless conversations between possible suspects and Strike.  The tough Colombo-like detective (he is missing a leg, not an eye) with a soft-spot for his bright adventure-seeking new secretary, solves the case about halfway through the book, from crucial but mysterious clues that only he can decipher. What was the significance of the drops of water on the stairs and the victim’s missing note, written on a blue slip of paper?  How did the search for a birth father change the victim’s life?

“The dead could only speak through the mouths of those left behind, and through the signs left they scattered behind them.”

The clues drop out fast, and you might want to use Strike’s note-taking method to keep them all straight.  If you enjoy solving a crime as you read, the author happily gives you all the pieces, and dutifully reveals all in an Agatha Christie wrap-up at the end.  The murderer is a surprise but you might figure it out.

In the book’s last lines, Rowling may be sending fans a message with Comoran’s quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses.”

I cannot rest from travel:  I will drink
Life to the lees; all times  have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those 
That loved me, and alone; on shore and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name…

Not as clever as Harry Potter’s magical escapades, but The Cuckoo’s Calling had enough to keep me reading to find out whodunit, and wonder if Rowling/Galbraith has created the beginnings of a detective series.  Comoran Strike and Robin make a good team.

A Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

After delivering seven magical books about Harry Potter, Rowling had raised high expectations for fans with her new book – A Casual Vacancy.  Harry is a hard act to follow, especially when the magic is missing and only the Muggles remain.  If you can forget who the author is and imagine she is a gritty British version of Jonathan Franzen, the disappointment is easier to digest.

The story centers around the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, chair of the parish Council (equivalent to a small town mayor), and the rippling effect on the lives of those who knew him in Pagford.  The little town problems of petty jealousies and back-stabbing gossip are matched against drug addiction, child neglect, self-mutilation, prostitution, and rape.  Rowling also adds profane language – just to be sure you know this is not a children’s book.

The slice of humanity represented in the flawed characters includes universal antagonisms between the haves and have-nots, those who long for the good old days and the young who cannot change the world fast enough, the struggle between social responsibility and self-preservation.  Rowling’s strength is in her descriptive back-stories, introducing you to small-minded people you already know; this is a small town and secrets are hard to keep.  The foil is Krystal Weedon, the deprived teenager desperate for a better life – the life that Barry was about to launch her into with an interview with the local newspaper – before he unexpectedly died of an aneurysm. From the other side of the tracks, Krystal’s struggles are overwhelming: a drug addict mother and a life of poverty and filth.  The possibility that she will be saved kept me reading, but she was the doomed tragic heroine.

People can be cruel, and Rowling brings out the worst in them, as she exposes their weaknesses and dares them to be civil, in the wake of the one dead man who seemed to have kept the monsters at bay.  As the story marches slowly past Barry’s funeral, facades fall aside and the race to fill the dead man’s Council seat is on.  The action escalates to a brutal exposé of small town politics with teenagers hacking into the Council’s website, creating chaos and feeding the misery, while seeking revenge for parental injustices.

The story is divided into seven sections; by the fourth section, I could not imagine that life could get worse but I was wrong. With little comic relief, the story heads nonstop into a Shakespearean tragic ending – dead bodies and ruined lives.  The small town goes on being small-minded.

Rowling clearly makes her point that she can write stories for adults, and over 500 pages of A Casual Vacancy raise serious social issues that adults need to address – all in an unsympathetic view of the human condition.  If I had not known about Harry Potter, I may not have missed the hope and possibilities that are deliberately avoided.