Fame and Crime: The Cuckoo’s Calling

Fair warning: This is not going to be an entirely positive review.

The Cuckoo's Calling

My reaction to J.K. Rowling’s detective novel was summed up rather well on page 171: “on the cooler side of tepid.” I did find it rather amusing that the main character was a 220-lb ex-military detective with a very low tolerance for bullshit. “How strange,” I thought to myself, “that Rowling chose, as her alter ego, a heavily-bearded, beer-guzzling middle-aged man named Cormoran Strike who only showers every two or three days.” I get the sense, at times, that Rowling resents some of the limitations that she’s experienced as a woman–after all, isn’t the fact that her publisher pushed her to release the Harry Potter series using her initials, instead of her full name, Joanne, so that it would appeal to young boys, evidence of the sexism she’s encountered? That said, she’s rather critical of some of the female characters in the book.

Now, The Cuckoo’s Calling is, admittedly, a solid piece of writing. I do like the way Rowling writes; it’s easy to digest and understand, quite well-suited for a detective story in some ways. I find it funny, thinking back, how my mom referred to the Harry Potter books as mysteries–and I have no doubt that she was correct. At the time, I was preoccupied with all of the magic, but it’s true that the each book follows a linear plot, with a long exposition and a complicated climax (usually involving Voldemort) at the end. The Cuckoo’s Calling is much the same: the exposition is extremely drawn out, to the extent that it becomes almost tedious. I found myself waiting for, and wanting, more action. Sadly, without magic and creativity to enhance the plot, the story falls a bit flat.

I prefer detective stories with a little more meat to them. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was fascinating to read because it was almost equal parts thriller and social criticism, the latter embodied by the divisive main character, Lisbeth Salander. Apart from that, I generally avoid the genre, both written and televised–CSI, Law & Order, The Closer, and similar shows are of very little interest to me, largely because they are so predictable and morally heavy-handed. On the other hand, I understand the appeal of short detective stories like those in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, where just enough clues are revealed so that a clever and discerning reader can solve the crime at the same time Sherlock does. But The Cuckoo’s Calling is, sadly, not a candidate for either category; it is neither a genre-bending crime thriller nor a tightly-constructed detective puzzle.

J.K. Rowling does sprinkle little bits of social criticism throughout the text, but they are asides, not a foundation. My favorite part of the book was on page 57-58, where a female journalist criticizes the general public for mourning a model’s untimely death:

No, it is not the young woman whose loss we bemoan, for she was no more real to most of us than the Gibson girls who dripped from Dana’s pen. What we mourn is the physical image flickering across a multitude of red-tops and celeb mags; an image that sold us clothes and handbags and a notion of celebrity that, in her demise, proved to be empty and transient as a soap bubble. What we actually miss, were we honest enough to admit it, are the entertaining antics of that paper-thin good-time girl, whose strip-cartoon existence of drug abuse, riotous living, fancy clothes and dangerous on-off boyfriend we can no longer enjoy. (page 58)

Rowling had a great opportunity to continue criticizing celebrity culture, but this is the closest she gets. Instead, the bulk of the novel consists of conversations that detective Cormoran Strike has with the friends and family of the deceased model. (Which, on that note, I was always surprised by how much everyone revealed to Strike. Why should they have cooperated with a private detective? In the United States, most of those conversations wouldn’t have taken place without a lawyer present. In fact, I’m not even sure how a detective could go fiddling around with a police investigation in the first place).

There is another issue that I must harp on, briefly. Detective Cormoran Strike is, as I mentioned above, ex-military. I don’t know why Rowling chose to give him a military history, but it rang false to me. I am sure that she, along with many members of the general public in the UK, has mixed feelings toward the country’s involvement in the Middle East. But the detective’s military background seemed like nothing more than a device to make the character seem more interesting and mysterious. I don’t appreciate when details like that are thrown in just for the sake of being details, and I don’t think you should write about the military unless you are really sure what you’re talking about.

I know that Rowling’s previous novel, The Casual Vacancy, was also met with unenthusiastic reviews, but I actually liked that one better. I realize that the social criticism was rather heavy-handed, and that the ending was too needlessly tragic to make it a popular book, but at least Rowling held onto her convictions. She wanted to write a book about how residents of small towns mistreat each other, and that she did supremely well. Could it have been handled with greater finesse? Of course. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile read.

The Cuckoo’s Calling, though, I’m afraid I can’t strongly recommend. If you like crime/thriller/detective stories, then I am sure this will not disappoint you. But I would rather re-read Jane Eyre myself.

Overall rating: 3/5 stars

Photo credit: G. 

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24 thoughts on “Fame and Crime: The Cuckoo’s Calling

  1. Nice review, Alina! I read this book, but have not had the pleasure of reading any of J.K. Rowling’s other works. I did enjoy The Cuckoo’s Calling as a light fluff piece I could read quickly and breezily on my train commute. It was so vapid at times, I didn’t have to think sometimes, which is bad if one is going for thoughtfulness, but good if one (like me) is going for light entertainment. I thought the whole kerfuffle with the “author’s” name was amusing and that was why I was prompted to pick this up. I actually own The Casual Vacancy, but still have not read it. I believe I will try it now since you said it is better than The Cuckoo’s Calling. Enjoy your day!

    1. Yes, I think that “light fluff piece” is a perfect way to describe it! I wasn’t surprised that it only took me a few days to finish the book, because there wasn’t much depth to it. I also read this book solely because it was written by J.K. Rowling (I shall always be a die-hard Harry Potter fanatic!). I hope you like The Casual Vacancy. Like I said, it’s sort of overbearing at times, but the on-point characterization and constantly shifting perspectives keep it interesting.

  2. After reading your review, I am not likely to pick up the book :). I do agree with you on CSI similar kinds. I do suggest to try ‘The Killing’ and ‘True Detectives’ both have storytelling style, that unravels both the mystery and the complexity of human nature.

  3. I have yet to read any of her work beyonf Harry Potter, but I am glad to see that she is branching out more. I was convinces that Harry Potter would be the last we saw of her, maybe a few spin off’s or other young adult books, so it’s good to see her branching out. I might check “a casual vacancy” out just to see how she writes outside of her genre.

    Thanks for the review

    1. Yes, I was also quite surprised when I heard that she had written a novel intended for adults! Honestly, nothing will ever come close to the Harry Potter series, I don’t think. As for whether you should read “The Casual Vacancy” or “The Cuckoo’s Calling” I think it honestly depends on which genre you like more: small-town drama and social criticism, or crime thriller. I just happen to prefer the former. Thanks for the comment!

  4. I love the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books! but must admit that I also watch CSI and CSI: Miami, purely for the fluff factor. I almost enjoy how cheesy Horatio’s lines are…and especially his delivery of them. 😉 Never made it through a Harry Potter book OR movie though…

    1. haha no worries. There are some films that I go to see purely because I like the lead actress or because I think the lead actor is hot. (Right now ‘Pompeii’ is tempting me because of Jon Snow). Sorry to hear that you didn’t like the Harry Potter books 😦 They were such an integral part of my childhood that I can’t imagine ANYONE not reading them!!

  5. I’m one of those people who guiltily watches CSI (the original series, not the ones without Grissom), CSI:Miami and CSI:NY from time to time. I think I’m just a bit of a culture geek! I agree though, they’re very formulaic and not what I would call satisfying viewing in terms of an interesting narrative! 🙂

    I also read the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo series – strangely I picked it up just before it hit the big time, it seemed to be something I would enjoy, and I don’t normally read crime. Lisbeth is an awesome character. I’ve become a bit more interested in crime as a genre lately and when it’s done well, it can be excellent. So much of it seems formulaic though. It does seem a shame that Rowling didn’t go a bit beyond and take it as a chance to examine society – some of the best crime and supernatural fantasy (urban fantasy) challenges and examines social norms and values.

    1. I know what you mean about CSI:Miami and CSI:NY being good reflections of culture – I assume that is what you meant by “culture geek”? And sorry to criticize shows you enjoy – I myself have fallen prey to the formulaic narrative from time to time, especially with the TV show “House, MD.” So I can’t really scold anyone too much without also scolding myself!

      Yes, I think Lisbeth is one of the most powerful and likable characters to emerge from literature in the past 10 years or so. Perhaps that’s an overstatement, but I liked the series so much that I approved of BOTH the Swedish and American film adaptations. As for good crime fiction, I’m hoping that “Death of a Nightengale” by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis will be good – it’s on my reading list and I will get to it eventually! Do let me know if you have any other recommendations.

      1. That too – but just in general, I watch lots of different series when the mood takes me, lol 🙂 Into Supernatural and Game of Thrones at the moment!

        She is, I agree. I enjoyed the Swedish adaptation, I haven’t seen the US ones yet! 🙂

  6. I listened to this one in my car a few months ago and only got about halfway through. It rang false, as you say, and just wasn’t that interesting.

    1. Don’t worry, you didn’t miss much! The ending is not particularly exciting, and the “revelation” sequence where the detective lays out how he solved the crime was a little too far-fetched for my taste.

  7. I avoid all that CSI rubbish as well. That stinks of mediocre television to me. BUT. I will go so far as to say True Detective is/was one of the best TV shows ever made. And, for a lighter look at detective’s have you ever seen Bored To Death starring Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifiniakis and Ted Danson? That was a good TV show.

    1. Tom, we are on exactly the same page! haha. I freaking LOVE True Detective – I’ve only got one episode left to watch, so don’t spoil it for me! And yes, I’ve also watched all three seasons of Bored to Death. I liked that it was witty and funny and that the detective stuff was only part of the show. I thought Ted Danson’s character was especially hilarious. I still remember the scene when he gets busted for smoking weed at work. Too. funny.

      1. Yeah Bored To Death was really charming wasn’t it. I’m not a huge Galifiniakis fan but love Schwartzman and Danson. Glad you like TD, it’s pure brilliance isn’t it. Last episode is a fitting end, hope you enjoy it!

        1. Yeah TD is the most accurate portrayal of the American South that I’ve ever seen on film! Might have to do a post about it once I’ve finished the series. 🙂 I agree that Galifianakis wasn’t the funniest of the starring trio, but I found the stuff about his dysfunctional relationship rather humorous and also quite sad at the same time.

    1. Thanks Mikey! Yeah, you can definitely skip this one. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is much more exciting! Rowling was a bit weird with all of the celebrity stuff – she seems to admire beauty for beauty’s sake.

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