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