I’m not ashamed to admit that I purchased this book immediately after I heard the news that it was secretly written by JKR. What on earth else would you expect of me?
I understand why she would publish a book without her name attached to it. Imagine the incredible pressure she’s under every time she wants to publish a book. Every pseudo-intellectual wants to prove that she (and that Harry Potter) doesn’t deserve so much praise because it’s not Proust. Every Harry Potter fan inevitably compares all her other work to Harry Potter. For this book in particular, using not just a pen name, but the pen name of a male author, makes sense. It’s a male dominated genre, and her protagonist is a pretty butch dude. Reading 2 different reviews compare him to Hagrid and Alastor Moody (though I see absolutely no similarities) was enough to make me understand why she wanted to be anonymous. I’m sort of glad she didn’t stay anonymous, though, because I want to read whatever she writes and I’m glad I got to read this.
This sort of mass market crime fiction isn’t really my genre of choice, I’ll say that first. I’ve read a few Agatha Christie, some of Poe and Conan Doyle’s detective stories, but they are all firmly ensconced in the ‘period fiction’ world and have little in common with your average James Patterson or …I can’t even think of another one. Is Lillian Jackson Braun still putting out those Cat Who detective books?
So, I’m not up on the genre. But if I look back to Harry Potter, there was a lot of mystery. And I was almost always fooled. I remember I spent a good time yelling at everyone while reading Chamber of Secrets, because obviously it was Percy all along!!! Oh wait… And there were always threats of undercover agents and false identities (Mad-Eye Moody, Peter Pettigrew), and just general turncoats (Quirrell, Pettigrew again). I never saw any of it coming. JKR is really great at red herrings and distractors, so this sort of book is right up her alley.
The plot of The Cuckoo’s Calling centers around Cormoran Strike, a private detective in London, who has just broken up with his fiance and has his last few dollars sunk into his failing business. A second protagonist is Robin, his temporary assistant from Yorkshire, who has always wanted to solve mysteries. Strike gets a case from John Bristow, who grew up in the same small town as Strike. Bristow wants Strike to look into the apparent suicide of his adoptive sister Lula, who was an up-and-coming model and tabloid favorite before she jumped out of her apartment window to her death. Bristow is convinced it was murder, despite Lula’s history of bipolar disorder and messy relationships with drug-users. Suspects include her drug-addicted on/off boyfriend, her fashion industry friends, family, her biological parents, her neighbors.
In many ways, it’s your typical mystery novel. Private detective with personal and financial problems, a seedy and mysterious backstory, convenient police and street connections used to acquire delicate information. He talks to everyone who knew Lula, he runs down small clues and keeps notebooks of information. He doesn’t share much with the reader about his thought process. We see him ask questions, but he keeps his thoughts to himself about their possible interpretations. He shares no theories, even with Robin. Sometimes it’s a little too much–it’s as if the characters know they shouldn’t give away too much and ruin the fun for the reader–but it’s part of the genre. The author has to give you just enough that you have a decent chance of guessing correctly, but not so much that you can actually figure out the solution. I think while I was reading it, the correct villain did occur to me but every other possible combination of perpetrator and motive also occurred to me.
In the end, the ‘who’ and ‘why’ reveal both surprised me and didn’t. The thought had occurred to me, but I had dismissed it because it made no sense. I still feel it doesn’t make tons of sense, and that is a little irritating. But I often find that, after a killer is revealed, I don’t feel satisfied by the explanation given, so this may not be entirely the fault of the novelist. I may just find it hard to accept that so little is required to kill someone.
JKR has already announced a sequel that is written and ready to be published next year. I will continue to read whatever she writes; that’s a given. If this was written by someone else, it’s unlikely I would have read it in the first place–I had certainly never heard of it before the day she was ‘outed’ on Twitter. I enjoyed the book enough to say I will enjoy the sequel. It was certainly much less bleak than A Casual Vacancy. For its genre, the book is enjoyable and well done. Even though the genre isn’t really my thing, I still liked reading it.
And yet. As much as I understand why JKR would want feedback on her writing from a position of anonymity, and as much as I comprehend her desire to write different things as she matures as human and as writer…I can’t help but wish. I liked A Casual Vacancy, and I’d venture to say I liked Cuckoo’s Calling a bit more, but… I’ll just come out and say it. It’s no Harry Potter.
One of the most spectacular things about JKR’s writing, and certainly the most important part of her talent for storytelling is her ability to imagine and build worlds full of wonder and beauty and fate and everything we wish was plentiful on Earth, but is somewhat scarce in reality. She creates amazing worlds that I could spend the rest of my life occupying. Give me a cottage in Hogsmeade and I’m set for life. I’ll work at Flourish & Blotts and have a wand with unicorn hair and I’ll be happy.
Having her eschew the work of imagination and the worlds of fantasy and magic, to exist in the grim and gray reality that we all occupy, is unsatisfying for me. It’s unsatisfying because she’s not utilizing a large part of what made her incredibly successful. Like watching Picasso give up paints and work with washable Crayola markers. Worse, it’s like watching Dali color only in the lines in a coloring book. One of the super-conservative Christian coloring books my grandmother used to give me.
It’s also unsatisfying because I, as a reader, would just rather spend my time at Hogwarts, or the Ministry of Magic, or 12 Grimmauld Place. I enjoyed this book. But that enjoyment is about .000002% of the enjoyment I would get out of a new Harry Potter short story. Even a poem. Even a Haiku! So it will always be a bit of a let-down, a bit unsaturated, comparatively.