Lately, Joe and I have been watching through Brooklyn 99 together; it always has me laughing out loud throughout the episode and the interesting and lovable characters make it compulsively watchable. Meanwhile, I have also been developing a keen delight in watching The Great British Bake Show. Nearly everybody I tell about this says the same thing: “it’s just so comforting! They’re all so nice to one another!” The charming tone and the fascination I have with so many of the different and elaborate things the contestants bake makes it a complete pleasure to watch; I’m surprised sometimes to find how invested I can become in their success with each task.
Last weekend, the combination of the above had me wanting a little more detective work, a little more British scenery, and maybe I had a little bit of a lingering nostalgia for children’s authors from reading Howl’s Moving Castle. I ended up picking up The Cuckoo’s Calling from my shelf. It is written by author J.K. Rowling (of Harry Potter fame) under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. I had purchased it a while ago with some vague intention of reading eventually, but always seemed to have something more interesting to pick up first. Although I loved mystery books when I was a child (and briefly wanted to grow up to be a detective,) I haven’t read a mystery novel since that time. Upon starting The Cuckoo’s Calling, however, I found it almost instantly compelling and read the entire book in only four sittings.
That isn’t to say, however, that it moves very quickly. In fact, the first half or two thirds of the novel move very slowly. It begins several months after the highly publicized suicide of supermodel Lula Landry, when down-on-his-luck private eye Cormoran Strike gets a visit from the model’s adopted brother. Despite an apparent lack of evidence that this is the case, her brother insists she has been murdered. He does not believe that his beloved sister would have killed herself that night. Cormoran and his secretary, Robin (a temp who is only supposed to be with him for a week or two until she can start a more permanent, well-paying, and respectable job), make phone calls and meet up with security guards, drivers, and anyone else they can get a hold of who may have seen Lula over her last hours. It does not seem that they are getting any persuasive information and Cormoran is decided simply to prove beyond a doubt that there was no murder so the whole issue can finally be put to rest… until some inconsistencies have him start to wonder if Lula’s brother is correct, after all.
Rowling waits until the last few pages to reveal the true events of the night of Lula’s death and tie everything together. Just when I was starting to think I had it figured out, she lays out the dark and startling conclusion in a tense meeting which Cormoran is lucky to survive. I had suspected part of the solution early on, but quickly dismissed it as it initially did not seem plausible. (I can’t give myself too much credit, however – at some point I found myself questioning nearly every character’s motivations and opportunity, whether it was offered by the text or not!)
Rowling’s writing strengths are similar here to her Harry Potter novels: she develops vivid characters who are believable and entertaining, although the secondary characters always seem more vibrant and fleshed-out than her main characters. Even though Cormoran and Robin are both point-of-view characters with their own flaws and desires, I could never quite shake the feeling that both were simply a vehicle for the story to progress. Like Harry, they somehow feel like the least important character in their own story. Still, they made me chuckle at times, cheer for their successes, and – occasionally – worry for their well-being.
One quote stood out to me, regarding the different reactions to the deaths of different people Cormoran has known over the years including Lula, a homeless woman, and his own mother:
“[They] had not been women like Lucy, or his Aunt Joan; they had not taken every reasonable precaution against violence or chance; they had not tethered themselves to life with mortgages and voluntary work, safe husbands and clean-faced dependents: their deaths, therefore, were not classed as “tragic,” in the same way as those of staid and respectable housewives.
“How easy it was to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.”
It made me ponder for a minute how we judge others’ lives and consider them deserving or not deserving of life and happiness based on how they lived the life they had. Certainly, all death is tragic, but some are received with sadness, others with indifference or scorn – and that in itself may be a tragedy.
Ultimately, this is just a detective novel. Rowling ruminates a little on the effects wealth and fame can have on people, but I didn’t come away from it pondering any deep thoughts – just excited by the puzzle. I am hooked enough to want to find out what happens next to Cormoran and to Robin and how they solve more puzzles… but it might be a while before I end up pulling the next one off the shelf.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2