Well, well, well. J K Rowling has balls after all, publishing under a pseudonym and gathering some good reviews and typical mid-list debut author sales rankings along the way, until she was accidentally outed. Maybe next time she'll self-publish and keep her identity a secret until she's ready to reveal it.
I was never much attracted to ‘The Casual Vacancy’ but murder mysteries are right up my alley. This one, set in London, features a superstar model who apparently jumps off a balcony to her death, but her brother is convinced she was murdered. Enter Cormoran Strike, an ex-soldier with a surprisingly classy and rich ex-girlfriend, and a not very successful private eye business. Robin Ellacott is his new temp, starry-eyed about her recent engagement.
A straightforward genre book of this type, presumably the first of a series, succeeds or fails largely on the strength of the main character, and to be honest I can’t work out whether Cormoran Strike works or not. On the one hand, he has all the typical hallmarks of his type - ex-military police, invalided out of the army, now down on his luck, girlfriend’s thrown him out, hounded for debts and sleeping in the office. So far, so standard. Yet beneath the bluff exterior, he’s a painstaking and intelligent detective, methodically tracking down potential witnesses, interviewing them with tedious thoroughness and carefully writing up his notes every night. Despite sleeping in the office and living on pot noodles and Chinese takeaways, he manages to shower every day and do his laundry, even the ironing. It’s as if the author couldn’t quite bring herself to make him a complete slob.
The big question for me, is why exactly was he down on his luck and in debt in the first place? He’s had a good (ie well-paid) job in the army, and presumably now has a reasonable pension from being blown up on active duty. He’s clearly very good at what he does, he has friends, plus an endless supply of useful contacts for information or computer hacking skills, he doesn’t routinely drink to excess or gamble or indulge in other expensive habits. He’s had a very posh (ie rich) girlfriend with whom he lived for a number of years, so he’s not even had to put a roof over his head. So why is he in debt? Maybe this will be revealed later, but for now it makes little sense.
His sidekick, Robin, is less of a mystery. She’s moved to London to be closer to her fiance, so while she’s clearly overqualified and far too inventive to be a low-rent temp, she was supposed to be only passing through on the way to better things. She is conveniently good at computer searches and play-acting, though. There’s probably much more backstory to be revealed about her, but for now the little we know is enough. And, like Strike, she’s a likeable character. The other characters are a mixed collection of the rich and famous, or the tail-end of society, all of them nicely delineated and very believable.
The plot follows the usual pattern: as Strike interviews one person after another, little clues are revealed about the victim, her lifestyle, her friends and relationships, and ultimately the truth about the night she died. This is handled in a fairly predictable, not to say pedestrian, way. The interviews are long in themselves, and when interspersed with chatter about what people are eating and drinking (‘Another one?’; ‘Yeah, I’ll have a lager, thanks.’; Strike went to the bar and ordered... zzz) they seem interminable and banal. But the murder mystery itself I found intriguing. It sucked me in exactly the way it was supposed to: so who did she phone up? and why did the woman downstairs hear talking? and who were those guys running away? I liked it.
I do have some grumbles though. Someone should point out to the author that jumping from one point of view character to another without warning is seriously disruptive. There are only two main characters with points of view, Strike and Robin, but the view hops from one to the other without any indication. Every time I came across this I stopped, said ‘what just happened?’ and had to go back and reread. It’s an annoyance. The other big annoyance are those long, convoluted sentences with several sub-clauses in them. Here’s a random example:“He behaved, in Lucy’s terms, well throughout the rest of the party, devoting himself in the main to defusing brewing arguments between various overexcited children, then barricading himself behind a trestle table covered in jelly and ice cream, thus avoiding the intrusive interest of the prowling mothers.”
Many, many times I ground to a halt, losing the thread, and had to reread. Yet another annoyance: the intrusive name-dropping. Do we really need to know that Strike drinks Doom Bar beer, that the victim’s laptop was a Dell, the exact brand of cigarette smoked? Then there’s the mention of ‘the election’ and references to Gordon Brown. None of this seems to have any relevance to the plot [* but see below], and only serves to ensure that the story will very quickly seem dated. None of these are mistakes, exactly, but they do disturb the flow when reading. But there are moments in the second half when the writing is right on the nose. Here’s the description of the victim’s mother:“The dying woman wore a thick ivory-coloured bed jacket and reclined, dwarfed by her carved wooden bed, on many white pillows. No trace of Lady Bristow’s youthful prettiness remained. The raw bones of the skeleton were clearly delineated now, beneath fine skin that was shiny and flaking. Her eyes were sunken, filmy and dim, and her wispy hair, fine as a baby’s, was grey against large expanses of pink scalp. Her emaciated arms lay limp on top of the covers, a catheter protruded. Her death was an almost palpable presence in the room, as though it stood waiting patiently, politely, behind the curtains.”
On the whole, though, everything about the book works well enough without ever being mind-blowing. The murder grabbed me right from the start and each little reveal kept me turning the pages for the next. The ending is carefully thought out, with every loose end neatly tied up and everything logical (although stretching credibility, but that’s par for the course in the genre). Did I guess the identity of the murderer? No, I had no clue at all, even though the motive was fairly obvious. So full marks for the sleight of hand. The methodical detective and his implausibly creative secretary are a nicely likeable pair, and I’ll certainly look out for the next in the series. Four stars.
[*] It’s interesting, in view of the revelation that nominal author Robert Galbraith is actually J K Rowling, to consider the role of the press in the story, specifically the paparazzi who are described as buzzing like flies in the book’s opening, and are ever-present in the lives of the rich, famous and beautiful people who make up most of the principal characters. In particular, the phone hacking of the victim herself affects her actions and, in retrospect, makes it very difficult for the police to work out what she did on the last day of her life and, ultimately, why she was killed. The reference to ‘the election’ dates the story to 2010, a point when the initial scandal about the hacking of royalty and celebrities (including Rowling) had died down without action taken. It was only in mid-2011, when it was revealed that the mobile phone of a child murder victim had been hacked, that public opinion was sufficiently incensed to trigger the usual round of inquiries and commissions and more serious police investigations, leading eventually to arrests. Rowling herself was one of those who gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. So it may be that ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ is just one long diatribe about press intrusion. Still a nice piece of work, though.