A crush gone deadly: a review of The Cuckoo’s Calling

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.

The Cuckoo's CallingScrew 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.

Grade: C

Why J.K. Rowling’s adult, totally not for children books are OK by me

Rowling

Jo has come a long way from the days of Harry Potter. It’s weird to think that one of the biggest children’s writers of our time is now catering to adults, but it’s happening, and it’s probably not going to stop.

When I read 2013’s suburbia novel The Casual Vacancy, which J.K. Rowling wrote several years after children’s book The Tales of Beedle the Bard (a spin-off from the Potter line), I was surprised at how literally the author seemed to construe the term “adult readership.” The book is good, and it mellows out a bit, but I felt like Rowling was trying to cram as much mature content into the opening as she possibly could. Name a dirty topic, and she was making it a character trait.

Now I’m in the middle of reading A Cuckoo’s Calling* (which, hey, is getting a sequel in June), a crime-detective mystery that she published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. After how much flack she got for the rather brash Casual Vacancy, it makes sense that the poor woman would choose to bury the Rowling name with the Harry Potter series and start anew.

Last year in July, Rowling went on record saying, “I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”

Can you blame her? Maybe it’s because of critics’ quotes like this one from Bloomberg: “Imagine Harry Potter with nothing but Muggles — mean, graceless people without a trace of magic. It would be a dull book indeed.”

The Casual Vacancy is not a perfect book. I think it’s terribly flawed in the beginning, like Rowling was trying too hard to leave Harry behind and rewrite everyone’s notion of her as this charming British lady who writes about wizards and magic and young adulthood. Remember, this is the same woman who killed off — OK wait, spoiler alert from 2007 — Hedwig for no reason other than to teach children that our friends die (seriously, read the quote at the front of the book). I thought the rest of Casual Vacancy was quite wonderful. It’s just not something you’d read to your kids.

It’s wrong of us to expect Rowling to keep writing children’s fiction just because of her earlier success. If she needs to ditch her name and adopt a pseudonym to get us to drop the incessant comparisons to Harry Potter and why The Casual Vacancy and A Cuckoo’s Calling aren’t Harry Potter, then more power to her.

She’s a writer. Let her write. If you don’t like it, go reread Sorcerer’s Stone — and shush.

*More on Cuckoo’s Calling from me soon.

J.K. Rowling’s latest book is a crime novel few people read

The Cuckoo's CallingYou probably missed it, but J.K. Rowling — the author of The Casual Vacancy and Harry Potter — published another book. Only she did it under a pseudonym for the explicit purpose of seeing how readers would react.

Rowling penned crime-fiction novel The Cuckoo’s Calling as unknown writer Robert Galbraith. Critics loved it, but it sold poorly. Then the publisher, Mulholland Books (an imprint of Little, Brown, and Company), revealed Galbraith’s identity, and the book quickly became a bestseller, with sales peaking 507,000 percent.

“I hoped to keep this secret a little longer because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience!” Rowling said. “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback from publishers and readers under a different name.”

She added, “And to those who have asked for a sequel, Robert fully intends to keep writing the series although he will probably continue to turn down personal appearances.”

Little, Brown, and Company is working on a reprint that states the connection between Galbraith and Rowling.

A writer at CNN pointed out that a more interesting case is that of Chuck Ross, who made publishers look like idiots when he retyped and submitted the novel Steps by Jerzy Kosinski only without the title and with his own byline. Most rejected it, for amusingly oblivious reasons.