Jason Lalljee 's Reviews > The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith
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UPDATE 2: This is my final review of the book. Most of what I included in my preemptive thoughts is here, so you don't have to read this whole... thing.

Potential television series title #21: LONDON STRIKE

Alright, let’s address the hippogriff in the room: finding out that J.K. Rowling published a book under a pseudonym is something that I had I expected might happen post-Potter (and, embarrassingly, searched for), but when the question was brought up as to whether or not she'd write under one, she dismissed the idea, saying that people would quickly find out it was her (which, after reading The Casual Vacancy I concur with, as the tagline could have been "WELCOME TO DURSLEYVILLE"), so the idea was sort of debunked for me.

First, I feel that it’s necessary to offer in preamble that I actually liked The Casual Vacancy. Yes, it offers some views that some may find preachy, and Rowling’s stream-of-narrative writing lacks subtlety and dilutes the rawness of her characters. However, I also found it quite affecting- in fact, I’ve since read the novel a few more times more objectively, and the craft behind it becomes more apparent with each re-read. Did Franzen handle social satire better? Yes, but Rowling is in tight possession of a unique, wry wit that’s all her own. I think that the problem that many fans had is that they’re accustomed to the J.K. Rowling who writes about morality on a large scale- great battles of good and evil staged with dragons and goblins and ghosts, entrenched in themes of friendship, love, and death. The Casual Vacancy is also a morality tale- but the characters are so clueless, self-destructive and human, that a fan of the Harry Potter books can’t help but emerge disappointed.

Fortunately, The Cuckoo’s Calling doesn’t strive for such heights.

When I first heard about the book (after fixing the hole in the ceiling caused by my gargantuan leap of joy) I was excited. I mean, I’d much rather see J.K. Rowling whip out that killer gift for world building that she has in the realm of science fiction or fantasy, but she is equally skilled in mystery writing. I’ve always, always thought of The Chamber of Secrets as a mystery novel. That was always the appeal of it to me, and I felt that it stood out from the rest of the books because of it. But after J.K. Rowling wrote in the FAQ section of the new Cormoran Stike website that all of the Harry Potter books are essentially who-dun-its, with the exception of the fifth, I realized that they are. Each is essentially a search for a culprit using a limited amount of clues.

Potential television series title #19: BBC’S SHERLOCK HARRY—Ep. 1: “A Study in Potions”

But one doesn’t even need to view the Harry Potter books as mysteries in order to expect Rowling to be a great mystery writer- the immense amount of plotting and interweaving of detail throughout the books is commendable, and alone legitimizes the size of whatever paycheck Rowling got after every book. One of the biggest problems film makers had when adapting the final books of the series is that they came to realize that details that they had carelessly discarded bore great significance in the final books. An invisibility cloak becoming a Hallow, a friend’s pet rat an animagus. We know how skilled J.K. Rowling is at creating red-herrings and false trails already.

One doesn’t even need to read all of the books to understand this. Just one chapter, in the Goblet of Fire. In an interview with Charlie Rose last year, J.K. Rowling revealed that chapter 11 of the fourth installment of the series was one that she wrote and rewrote the most, in order to draw suspicion away from a newspaper article written about Mad-Eye Moody. The intention was that it was to be written so that it could be interpreted and reinterpreted by other characters and the readers, so that we wouldn’t figure out the truth about Moody’s character until the end. This shows us that Rowling has an eye for the way the reader thinks, something that comes in handy for her towards the climax of Calling.

Still, I had my reservations (see all 503 pages of The Casual Vacancy).

Potential television series title #7: ROBERT GALBRAITH’S (A.K.A. J.K. ROWLING’S (it’s out now, so we won’t look like douchebags for marketing it this way)) CORMORAN & ROBIN

But I was pleasantly surprised by The Cuckoo’s Calling. I don’t read much mystery, although I did read a lot of Agatha Christie when I was younger and watch BBC’S Sherlock now. When I do encounter a mystery, however, I judge it by how well it manages to surprise me. For me, this includes the author laying out all the details for the reader at the beginning- no big surprises towards the end masquerading as a clever twist that are really meant to keep the reader from finding out who did it. It’s the job of a good detective—and a good mystery writer—to piece together the clues in a way that the reader doesn’t, but theoretically could have. Rowling does this, balancing a cast of characters and an assortment of clues so numerous that I can’t imagine even the most dedicated mystery savant keeping up. The suspects at one point all seem to have iron-cast motive and opportunity, Rowling quickly outsmarting the reader.

The plotting and the sheer intricacy of the details woven throughout might be the most impressive that I’ve ever encountered in a modern mystery novel. The utter tautness of the book, quite frankly, blew me away. It sticks to the traditional mystery formula. Rowling doesn’t have a Gillian Flynn-like touch on the genre. There’s the obligatory introduction of each character and clue to the point where it feels like speed-dating, and there’s a long exposition at the end about what happens. I was so impressed by the ending, though, that the cookie-cutter feel of it became subdued. And everything- which is perhaps what was most refreshing- is realistic. There’s no shocking conclusion and- thankfully- no ludicrous segueways between connections.

Rowling’s gift for prose is evident, once again showing her finesse at maneuvering the English language. Although hardcore mystery fans may get a little tired of Rowling’s Dickensian style, I was always interested. In the sluggish, monotonous mid-morning hours at work I found myself wanting to pick up my copy of the book to see what happened next.

Her characters are great. The relationship between John and Robin is sweet but covers all its bases- I like that their friendship is just a “friendship,” but it’s not like they’re not going to each consider the romantic possibilities of the other. Cormoran’s handicapped, ex-military character felt a little too John Watson for me, but his role as a character that prevails and doesn’t wallow-for the most part-is satisfying. I enjoyed Robin’s character too, and hope her part is bigger in the next installment.

The presence of socioeconomic dynamics is featured heavily throughout the novel, and plays key parts in the mystery itself, lingering among character motivations and plot connections. I thought that it was a fascinating feature to include in a mystery novel, and gave it its distinct taste- but I hope that this doesn’t become a recurring theme throughout the series. It’s relevant here, but I prefer it as the atmosphere for one mystery alone. These dynamics are relevant ones in our culture, but the way that Rowling presented it in Vacancy was found unpalatable by a lot of readers. If she keeps it in play for each of her subsequent mysteries the way she does here, then the reader might grow bored. Some series’ find their tone in a shift of setting, going from the slums to high society. It’s the job of the main characters to keep the setting grounded, and with the team of John Bristow and Robin Ellacott, Rowling’s got the materials on hand.

In other ways, however, it feels like Rowling hasn’t found her tone as a writer. The ambiance here doesn’t take on the meaty, rich qualities that have characterized the most renowned mystery writers- Robert Louis Stevenson’s gift for describing shadowy alleys and nightmarish supernaturalism is his hallmark, Christie equally adept at creating grim atmospheres sans the magical realism. Rowling’s writing is beautiful, but it seems to languish in contemporaneity. In this way it’s not an escapist novel- immersive, yes, but I found myself becoming more aware of the present rather than absconding from it.

Bottom line, The Cuckoo’s Calling incorporates potent mystery writing, intricate plotting, and likable characters, showcasing some of Rowling’s best skills as a writer, even if her others don’t appeal entirely to the target audience here.

UPDATE: I've finished the book, and I was right about Rowling's deftness at mystery writing, particularly around the part about The Chamber of Secrets. Full review to come, but highly recommended. Not phenomenal or on par with Potter, but all the things that didn't work in Vacancy are very much present except that they work in a mystery setting, and that it's all very, very good. Tightest, most intricate plotting I've ever seen in a mystery novel.

So, finding out that J.K. Rowling published a book under a pseudonym is something I'd always expected (and, embarassingly, searched for), but when the question was brought up as to whether she'd write one, she said everyone would figure it out right away (which, after reading The Casual Vacancy I concur with, as the tagline could have been "WELCOME TO DURSLEYVILLE"), so the idea was sort of debunked for me. I'm slightly disappointed that I haven't heard of it, which means that it hasn't received enough acclaim to cross over to the mainstream on its own, which is less than I'd like. But people-

a) It's a J.K. Rowling book
b) We don't have to wait for it. It's already out.

I liked The Casual Vacancy. But I think that the main issue many fans had was that J.K. Rowling is an author who deals with morality on a huge scale, epic battles of good vs. evil, friendship, loneliness, adolescent turmoil and every other drama you could think of set on a stage featuring dragons and ghosts and goblins. Her knack for making rich as well as lovable characters is her hallmark, so segueing into a world where the characters are not only clueless and blind but also distinctly unlikable couldn't have been very easy for fans. Also, her voice as omniscient third-person narrator is certainly well-written as a stream of prose, but sort of diluted the significance of her characters; Vacancy also lacks the edge that made similar novels by Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) and Maria Semple (Where'd You Go, Bernadette), better. After multiple re-readings of Vacancy, I've grown to like the book a lot more- or rather appreciate it more, because while the craft behind it becomes more obvious with each read its overcast mood is unaccompanied by a payoff.

But this is a crime novel. Why am I excited for this? Because I've always, always thought of The Chamber of Secrets as a mystery novel. You don't even need to look at that book alone to know that Rowling is a master of mystery writing, the seemingly meaningless details sprinkled throughout the Harry Potter series bearing much more gravitas in later installments (much to the chagrin of filmmakers, cutting out important details due to lack of knowledge of said installments). Red herrings and false trails are an essential component in mystery writing, which she is undoubtedly skilled at creating.

So I'll be much more wary of you now Ms. Rowling, and I while I would still prefer that you return to fantasy, or even science-fiction, and even though I sense that you're becoming a very hit-or-miss author, your hits are still potent enough for me to want to read anything and everything you'll ever write again.
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Quotes Jason Liked

Robert Galbraith
“Ridiculous," he said breathlessly. "You ought to give up detecting and try fantasy writing.”
Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo's Calling
tags: irony

Reading Progress

July 13, 2013 – Shelved
July 13, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
Started Reading
July 19, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-20 of 20 (20 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

> I'm slightly disappointed that I haven't heard of it, which means it can't be the recipient of too much acclaim

Faulty logic! Many great books go undiscovered for decades. Many great books are still undiscovered today. People are just now discovering Stoner, by John Williams, hailing it as a masterpiece. Stoner was published in 1965.

Casey Same with the ASOIAF series! Many people didn't know about those for a fair while and then BAM - admittedly probably because of the tv show, but that doesn't mean they weren't great books initially!

Tiago This book has been critically acclaimed from the moment it came out. That was exactly what made a newspaper try and find out who the author was, since they could not believe a work so good had been said author's first published novel.

Stephen Im so happy that this is a J.K Rowling book! I have only just found out about it and like you said, its already out so we don't have to wait!!
Im going to read it as fast as i can.
Although i agree with what the others say, just because its not majorly popular doesn't mean its bad, like what Casey said, i literally hadn't heard about the game of thrones books till the tv show came out, an he had five books out!
Also, i hadn't heard of twilight until that movie came out an all 4 of them were out i think.

Just my two cents, ha. Love JK though and agree with pretty much everything else you said.

Howard After reading a couple of the reviews I was very keen to sample this dashing new thriller. Now, about half way through this turgid drivel, I wonder how the reviews got written. This is a slapdash book, using stilted dialog instead of narrative, with clumsy sentences and names so contrived that they pull you out of the story, not that one was in it much past the ankles, in irritation. The result is a story with two dimensional characters that no one can either care about or become interested in. I rather doubt that I'm going to finish it, especially with the new Daniel Silva waiting for me. Could I recommend The Cuckoo's Calling? Sorry, no: it's a stinker!

Amanda Z You swapped John for Cormoran in a couple of places.

It's interesting Rowling thinks 5 isn't a whodunit. It is. It's just that Harry did it by triggering the trap and so it's much much harder to get.

message 7: by Nehal (new)

Nehal God, I really enjoyed reading this review. You write well.

Robert Russin great review -- i almost wished i hadn't wasted time writing mine and just linked to yours instead, because you said much of what I wanted to say (and did so a lot more eloquently)

message 9: by Lynne (last edited Aug 13, 2013 02:27AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lynne King Excellent review Jason.

I'm reading this book at the moment. I found the first fifth of the book rather trite, with some sparkling sections but gradually I've become more immersed in it. I should have it finished tonight and I did something that I never normally do with a book. This is a first but I cheated and looked at last fifty or so pages. What a denouement! What an imagination!

I still think, however, that it is far too long at 464 pages. A literary work is different, of course. There are extraneous sections that the inhouse editor(s) of the publishing house should, in my opinion, have removed.

Robert Knowles I think the only reason this book is doing so well is because of who the author is, before the big reveal I believe sales were in the low thousands after the big reveal of course every one wanted to read it, clever marketing perhaps, me cynical, never.

50% in to the book and I'm finding it slow, tedious work, the characters effecting no sympathy, empathy or any other emotion for that matter, a chapter a day is a chore for me, and maybe a chore to far.

Do I care whether Lula jumped or was pushed enough to carry on, probably not.

message 11: by Lesley (new)

Lesley Watson Agree with Robert (10). Am wondering if it is worth continuing. I have read the same clues over and over and feel like I am listening to a stuck record.
Strike and Robin are insipid and unemotional. I hate putting a book down so I will continue till the bitter end and hope that it will improve.

Brittany Perry Honestly I think it's wrong to assume this was a marketing ploy. I just bought the book and I have to say I think it's great she is writing what she wants.Harry Potter was amazing no true book lover would contest that. Authors need to feel free enough to write whatever story pops into their head because if they are not passionate about it, how is anyone else going to love it. I have heard it starts slow but to stick with it. Also might I add I found the first couple of chapters in Sorcerer's Stone and Order of the Phoenix to be a bit slow. I think it is her style, she has slow beginnings until she loses herself in the world she is writing.

message 13: by Robert (last edited Aug 25, 2013 12:48PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Robert Knowles I did carry on read through to the end, I was disappointed the final chapter was so badly researched, specifically where Strike meets Lula's brother, the brother came across as a smart street talking youngster, rather than the young Royal Engineer officer he was meant to be, and his actions early on in the book were not those of some one itrained to deal with unusual situations.

Then reading the Authors Bio at the end, supposedly an EX Army SIB officer would have raised suspicions that the author Robert Galbraith was not who they said they were.

All in all a disappointing book for me.

Neeraj Wow.. This is a long comment thread or what. I do agree, there were a lot of complex words used in the book and I remember wondering why wud JKR do that. Also, I wouldn't have picked up this book unless I knew it was written by JKR. Nevertheless, I loved the characterization. The plot wasn't very original, but the characterizations and the slightly flowery but accurate descriptions of London were bang on.

message 15: by Tess (new) - added it

Tess Jason, I just want you to know that I'm citing your review in my doctoral dissertation on Charles Dickens and J. K. Rowling and their relationships with their fans. I'm opening up with some discussion of The Cuckoo's Calling and quoting your statement “hardcore mystery fans may get a little tired of Rowling’s Dickensian style.” Thanks for a great review!

Jason Lalljee Tess wrote: "Jason, I just want you to know that I'm citing your review in my doctoral dissertation on Charles Dickens and J. K. Rowling and their relationships with their fans. I'm opening up with some discus..."

Sure, sounds great! Good luck with the dissertation!

message 17: by Anno (new) - rated it 5 stars

Anno Interesting that you mention a tv series based on this, I thought the very same thing as I was finishing it!

message 18: by Ana (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ana You have mixed up John Bristow with Cormoran Strike in two places that I've noticed, but otherwise a great review.

message 19: by Elizabeth (new) - added it

Elizabeth If its so wonderful, I wonder why I found it at The Dollar Store?

message 20: by Anno (new) - rated it 5 stars

Anno Elizabeth wrote: "If its so wonderful, I wonder why I found it at The Dollar Store?"
Like finding a treasure at a garage sale, some people have no idea of the value of certain things! Certainly worth the $ spent even at full price!

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