The dead girl had had her glimpse of earthly paradise: littered with designer goods, and celebrities to sneer at, and handsome drivers to joke with, and the yearning for it had brought her to this: seven mourners, and a minister who did not know her name.
Screw Harry Potter. I believe that J.K. Rowling — or Robert Galbraith, as she’s calling herself these days — can write whatever the hell she wants. Saucy suburbia. Murder mystery. You name it.
Let her explore. Making mistakes is part of the process.
That’s why I’m OK with The Cuckoo’s Calling even though it isn’t her best work. Actually, it’s probably my least favorite. Rowling’s latest novel, which is due for a sequel called The Silkworm next month, is about a beautiful celebrity named Lula Landy who drops to her death out of her apartment window. Everyone says it’s suicide — the girl was spoiled and crazy — except her grief-stricken brother. The only one desperate and willing enough to indulge his delusion is an old family friend and private dick who’s down on his luck, dumped and near-penniless: Cormoran Strike.
Part of the drama involves his unfolding relationship with his assistant, Robin Ellacott, who’s too good for what he can afford but is secretly a nut for Sherlock Holmes-like detective thrills. That keeps her sticking around even though her boyfriend adamantly disapproves of her new, albeit temporary, choice of employment. Strike, moping and living out of his office, is a clever grump who lost his leg in Afghanistan. Robin is a trendy, enthusiastic independent whose emotional swings alternately cause tension and relief between she and Cormoran during almost every minute of interaction (or non-interaction). Comedically, they’re an interesting pair.
But my investment in the actual mystery wasn’t nearly as strong. Instead of it pulling and tugging me in a dozen directions, giving me the pleasure of finding confidence in what surely was the answer and then causing me to doubt myself and blame a different suspect entirely (repeat process), the investigation felt like nothing more than a series of routine interviews with little consequence. I get it. No one really liked Lula. She was shallow and capricious, but few people were good to her, either. Celebrities are very complicated people and yet not at all as deep as we imagine them to be in the afterglow of our daydream fantasies. By extension, we ourselves can come so close to fame only to touch it and then fall back to the regularity of our ordinary, dull lives.
The Cuckoo’s Calling both points out these societal fascinations and flaws and is victim to them: Lula, by the end, almost becomes this martyr figure — and yet nothing in the story convinces me that she really was all that genuine as the characters liked to think she might have been, secretly, behind the flashes of paparazzi and impulsive shopping trips and long-running family spats. She really was selfish. Tragedy just made her look kinder.
Personally, I got over the fascination with idolizing celebrities years ago, and maybe that makes the novel a little more transparent for me. Because Lula was just as genuine as her drug-abusing boyfriend was — really, underneath, “he has a good heart,” his friends said, as he acted rude and obnoxious to everyone around him.
Maybe that’s the point. We never really know these people, and does it matter? To the public eye, they’re composites of news stories, gossip, and scandalous photos. We’re all moving pieces in a drama — the same misfortunes can befall us all, despite our differing fortunes.
I only wish the story compelled me more — laid out the puzzle in plain view so I could see it come together. Instead, the pieces were snapped together in secret by invisible hands. About 70 percent of the way through is when Cormoran finally hints that the investigation is at last adding up to … something. The next 20 percent, he knows the murderer and is collecting the final, incriminating proof. The last 10 percent is the confrontation and resolution. That’s not much of a thriller.
And the murderer? Well, there was only really one logical suspect all along, wasn’t there? No one else had proper motive. Call me disappointed.
A part of me is curious to learn what happens to Cormoran and Robin, these two characters so unlikely to remain together. That’s one mystery that I’d like to see unravel — if only Rowling could give the reader a bigger part.