Monday, August 5, 2013

Come To The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling
~The Cuckoo's Calling~
Cormoran Strike Mysteries
Book 1
By Robert Galbraith
Pseudonym for J.K. Rowling

Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

A brilliant debut mystery in a classic vein:
Detective Cormoran Strike investigates a supermodel's suicide.

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, the legendary 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.

You may think you know detectives, but you've never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you've never seen them under an investigation like this.

I'll admit, I'm normally not one for mysteries. Many in my family enjoy reading them and figuring out whodunnit long before the character discovers it, but I'm more along for the ride with the characters than thinking ten moves ahead. Lately I've gotten a little more interested in TV mysteries (House M.D., Castle, Whodunnit?), but have always preferred the more upbeat and campy storylines rather than the dark and gritty ones. Still, with all the hype surrounding this book's release, and being among the first at my library to place a hold, I figured I had to take a peek.

And I got hooked as soon as I finished that Prologue. Very reminiscent of Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, describing the moments following this death of a celebrity, the press and the spectacle surrounding it, and then asking how and why it happened. And that's really what the rest of the book is devoted to; talking with people, gathering information from them, piecing it together, and finally revealing exactly what happened at the end. But whereas Márquez's novella looks at the events from an omnicient eye, this story is seen through the eyes of the private investigator, Cormoran Strike.

Strike was a believable foil for our narrator. While the story is told in 3rd person, it's limited mostly to what our detective observes. Thus many of the descriptions of scenery and people, moods, and such were understandable because you believed Strike would be sensitive to these things. Personally, however, Strike was extremely closed off, even to the reader. There are enough clues here and there to pull out a better picture of him, his motives, and his past, but they can be slow in coming. Eventually I grew to like him, but I honestly cared more about solving the case than I did finding out more about our main character. Thankfully, that was never much of a distraction, as the book does well to keep the case its main focus.

Still, some time was given to establishing those who are to be the main characters of the series. Strike has run into some money troubles, and happens to forget to cancel the temp agency from sending in a new secretary. Robin is an extremely organized, smart, and empathetic woman. She's overjoyed to find herself in a real detective's office, having a very romanticized notion of how investigations are conducted. For the most part she serves as a helpful sidekick, answering phones, looking up information on the internet, and playing dumb in order to finagle important information out of unwilling witnesses. On the whole, she's kept out of the thick of things, and is thus very underplayed. Still, she's definitely smart and has the enthusiasm and drive to get what she wants (even when her fiancee disapproves). There are a few hints that there might be romantic tension between the two a little down the line, but I do hope it doesn't get too cliche or derivative.

However, where the book really shone was in its huge cast of suspects, witnesses, and informants. This book may not have magic, but I found the multitude of characters to be fascinating. It was clear that each and every one of them was fully developed and had motivations, desires, dreams, and pasts which had shaped them and brought them to this very situation. Psychology was brought up a couple times in the novel, a subject that both confounds and intrigues me, and it was exciting to delve into and study some of the characters in that light, fleeting though their presences were. Even though I doubt we'll encounter many of them in future stories, I'm excited to see when and how some of them might show up again.

I thought the mystery as a whole flowed well. Again, I'm not very well read on mysteries or crime/thrillers, but I thought the plot unraveled quite nicely, giving clues and information so that when the whole of it was revealed at the end, it made sense. I also thought the characters' histories worked well with the mystery vibe. You really aren't told much about Strike when he first appears, but through the course of the narrative we are able to piece together more and more until we're left with a better picture (though still not a complete one).

In terms of pacing, I can see where a few would complain. A thriller this is not, neither in action nor tension. The death happened some three months before the investigation starts, so other than Strike's doggedness in learning the truth, there's not much driving the story forward. I think the book spans about three weeks, and much of it is scheduling talks and working around other people's schedules. The story moves at a steady pace, so if you're set on learning about the starlet's death from the get go, it shouldn't be hard to keep going through to the end. If, however, you're struggling to find a hook in the first few chapters, I'm sorry to say that you probably won't find anything to better invest you.

I think I'm most interested to see what will happen in future books. Not only has Strike's situation drastically changed between the beginning and end, but I don't see how the series can work if the formula is just repeated. Strike is better known now, so I can see interviews becoming a bit easier in some cases and harder in others. Where will the dynamic go between Strike and Robin? Perhaps cases will revolve around a stricter timeline, or deal with different parts of society. Now that we've got something established, I'm excited to see what direction it goes in next.

At last it's time to talk about the giant purple polka-dotted elephant in the room: So J.K. Rowling wrote this book, what does that mean? For many, it seems a way to voice their utter disappointment in how far the author has fallen. It is hard not to think of Harry Potter when the the author's name comes up - a major downfall of her last novel, which was one of the Top 5 Most Abandoned Books (according to Goodreads). So I can understand wanting to distance herself from, not only the expectations of die hard HP fans, but also of the fantasy world in general.

This is not a fantasy novel. These are not fantasy characters. They don't exist in the same world, the same rules, nor the same attitude. They're not fighting a war which will amount to anything. They're not on some crusade for peace, or vanquishing evil. They're just trying to survive in a world where money is power and love can be a rare commodity. It's tough, it's gritty, it's downright ugly at times, and sometimes the only victory is living to see tomorrow. It's not something people are necessarily happy about, but fighting it isn't really an option, so they'll take what little victories they can.

Am I biased because I knew J.K. Rowling wrote it? Yes, I think so. I know that an author who knows how to write penned this novel. But at the same time I also know that she wrote not for her fans, but to explore and share a different type of story. She picked a different name, possibly a different persona altogether, not to trick people into liking her books but to share a story for mystery/detective fans. If anything, you should look at this novel as the farthest thing from Harry Potter and mark it down for its similarities rather than its differences.

Is the writing style different? Yes. Are the characters different? Yes. Is it better or worse? Perhaps. That's something that each person will have to figure out on their own, drawing on their own preferences and reading histories. But comparing The Cuckoo's Calling to a series so outside its genre and demographic is like comparing a peanut to a cantaloupe. Can similarities be drawn? Sure, go right ahead. Is one necessarily better than the other? It depends on what criteria you're using, but probably not.

In short, if you like the book, great! Tell others who you think would enjoy a detective story. If you don't like the book, that's fine too. I just hope that Rowling's first books aren't used as weapons against her newest ones, so that they might find their own fans as well.

Overall, The Cuckoo's Calling was an interesting foray into the world of detectives and investigation. I'd recommend it for those familiar with the mystery genre and detective stories enthusiasts or those looking for a calm and steady investigation with elements of noir. It contains strong language, drinking, allusions to sex, and violence (apart from the original crime), so it's safe to say it's probably not meant to be on the shelves of schools. That being said, I don't think some older high-schoolers would be completely out of range, though the pacing might be a bit too slow for them. So if you're looking for the magic that is good old-fashioned logic and curiosity, you'd have to be cuckoo not to give The Cuckoo's Calling a look.

Approximate Reading Time: 8 hours

Audiobook Review
Read by Robert Glenister
Length: 15.8 Hours
Listened at 2x Speed

Was very excited to find a copy of this available so early. Granted, the book was published back in May of this year, but with 'new' authors, it's still surprising to see a book get this great a treatment. A physical CD copy isn't available until later this month, but you can snag a copy on Audible right now, which I would highly recommend, especially for American readers.

This is the third time now that I've found reading British literature immensely more enjoyable in audio form. There's just something about Brit Lit (at least, all of the ones I've read thusfar) that gets a little drone-ish, and having a voice in my ear simply helps me get through it. Also, though the accent isn't extremely pronounced, I find having a British voice in my head helps get the mood of the book better. It's a bit slow and drawn out at times, so having a steady meter going through is a welcome help.

Mr. Glenister provides a great performance in this production. There was a multitude of voices, men and women, suspects and witnesses, to which Glenister provided a range of voices and accents, all distinctive and emotive. Whether a character had an educated tone, was slightly tipsy, nervous, flat out drunk, or had so thick an accent it was barely readable, the voices were completely understandable and identifiable. One character in particular possessed an accent written as a dialect all its own. I'm sure if I had been reading on my own I could have powered through it eventually, but it would have taken quite a bit of time and effort on my part. Glenister's masterful reading of the material allowed me to understand everything said without missing a beat.

The production as a whole was wonderful. I did notice a couple places where words or locations were changed, but I think it was done only for clarity's sake (changing "that shop" for the shop's name, for example) and it was literally only twice. If you have any interest in reading the book, but know you have a tendency to let your eyes wander at slow parts, I'd strongly recommend giving the audiobook a listen. If nothing else, it should provide a welcome translation for the dialect parts.