Saturday, August 24, 2013
Book Review: Cuckoo's Calling by JK Rowling
Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)
Series: Cormoran Strike, Book 1
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, thelegendary 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.
Normally I let a book stew in my mind for a while before I write a review, but I don't know if that is going to help me out with this one. I have to confess that mystery is generally not my genre of choice, but my coworker told me that this book had a terrific ending and that it was worth a read anyway. So here I am.
As the blurb says, this is about a down-on-his-luck detective trying to solve a case about a world-famous supermodel whose death was ruled a suicide. As with many series' initial books, there are a lot of moving parts to this story: there's the relationship with Strike and his family and his past, his growing friendship with his new secretary Robin, his finances, his injury - and of course there's the whole part of the book about a potentially murderer supermodel, who had a fine slew of her own problems.
At 455 pages (US Hardcover) this is not a "light reading" sort of book. With all the moving pieces and web of characters zipping in and out of the narrative, you have to pay close attention. Strike interviews character after character, his clever secretary using her wiles to track them down one by one, and there is always the impression that something increasingly important is being revealed with every scene. Something is being revealed with every interview or conversation, no matter how unreliable or biased the character seems to be, and of course the author/Strike doesn't reveal which details are the important ones, since that's pretty much what makes a mystery interesting.
As the book goes along, the stakes rise (as they should with any fiction story), and the characters introduced and details revealed become more and more engaging. But, still, right up until the Big Reveal, I was pretty much at a loss for what was about to happen.
Did the ending surprise me? Yes, yes it did. Did I have a clue who the real murderer was? No, no I did not. In that respect, I suppose this book was fairly well done.
And that's the problem I have with the mystery genre. The book is only considered "good" if the reader has no idea what's really going on as they get into the final passages of the book. If done correctly, everything makes complete sense in retrospect. And that, in return makes me feel like a drooling moron as I'm reading a mystery. (This is because, as my husband tells me, I am doing it wrong. Apparently that's not "how you read a mystery." I was unaware, until last night, that one is capable of reading an entire genre wrong.)
Apparently you're supposed to enjoy the setup and the suspense and maybe take a few stabs at figuring it out - but I don't have the patience for that. When I pick a HF, I enjoy reading the historical context and seeing the characters move through real historical events. If the characters are well-written, I know exactly why they are doing what they are doing and the importance of their actions (or unimportance, depending on the period and character). When I'm reading a fantasy and the protagonist is trying to accomplish their goal, I completely understand what they're looking for and why.
Mystery takes all of that and says "Nuh-uh, honey. You wanna know? Well, tough beans. Read the last twenty pages if you want cheat like a dirty cheater, but you're only cheating yourself. Now sit down and shut up."
Cuckoo's Calling. How about I get back to that?
A lot of people picked it up because Rowling wrote it. I wasn't going to touch it (see "Issues with the genre," above) but I read it anyway. There are a few writing tics that become increasingly irritating once you notice them. It's like someone popping their gum or chewing really loudly: if you don't even notice it, it's not a problem. But once you DO notice it, then it's all you can hear and it makes you want to punch the person. No? Just me?
First, for almost every character, we get a heavy-handed description of what they look like the second they enter a scene. This isn't the worst thing ever, but cumbersome homemade metaphor spring up in the work like weeds and draw the attention from the story and into the heavy use of language. Next, "show don't tell" is a rule that I'm not a stickler for, but once you notice that many situations are accompanied by an explanation why that person is here and what they are doing and how that matters, instead of just letting the reader figure it out - it becomes more "literary loud chewing" and that's all I could notice.
If you like mysteries in general, I suppose this one is just as good as any of them. The ending took me completely off-guard, and in retrospect, all of the little clues made complete sense. But that doesn't change the fact that for most of the book, I felt like an idiot.
3.5/5 Stars - Well executed, clever reveals, decent characterization. Did not change my disinterest in the mystery genre.