Saturday, August 24, 2013

Psuper Pseudonym Psurprise

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith / J.K. Rowling
(Mulholland Books, 2013)
Format: hardback via library

From Goodreads: "After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.

Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

You may think you know detectives, but you've never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you've never seen them under an investigation like this. Introducing Cormoran Strike, this is the acclaimed first crime novel by J.K. Rowling, writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith."

Look, I don't want to tell you how to read books or anything. (Well. I "don't". Primarily I just want to tell you what books to read.) But in addition to telling you to read The Cuckoo's Calling (seriously, do), I have to point out these two quotes that underscore Rowling's themes (not too spoilery):

From page 57 - Strike's secretary Robin is reading one of the articles about the famous death he's investigating. Strike is far from impressed with the writer's conclusions.
From page 378 (of 455) - Strike contemplates the burdens of nonconformity and how readily society places its own value judgements on the lives of everyone outside the norm.

I think this notion of tragedy and how it is applied to the 'ordinary' person "tethered... to life with mortgages and voluntary work" versus those who haven't "taken every reasonable precaution against violence or chance" is both interesting and very pervasive in this book. The paparazzi are everywhere - the book opens with them surrounding the scene of the death and the cameras never really go away throughout. If a character is famous, he or she is surrounded, hounded, picked over and analyzed and subscribed feelings and motivations and thoughts that don't necessarily have anything to do with that person's reality. It made Strike's task in investigating Lula Landry's death that much trickier, and the details of her life - the tests she used to give her friends to see which of them were selling stories about her, the places she sought connections to a world that was saner and kinder - that much more poignant.

And given the amount of speculation that was everywhere - I mean everywhere, if you were at all tuned into the book world - when the news broke that Galbraith was Rowling's pseudonym, it made for a very pointed commentary about fame, as well. (Not in an 'oh, poor JKR, so sad for her and her millions of fans and millions of bank notes' way, but definitely in a 'yeah, we actually are very quick to judge and to judge harshly, and to gobble up the judgments of others, now that I look at it' way.)

Besides all that, this is a smartly crafted and engaging detective story. There are red herrings; I had to do that thing where I flip back to the beginning or a mid-point to check what the brother or the friend or the policeman said and how that plays into what Strike is then finding out. There were reveals we got to see and guess at alongside Strike, but only he was precise and skilled enough to put it all together in the right way. I wanted to be Robin, his new temporary-agency secretary, watching him work and getting exposed to it all as it unfolded. (Which - great device for expositional purposes, and deftly handled.) I wanted to know Strike, but only if I could swoop in and fix his emotional pain for him, because he is Mr. Wounded Gruff Man, which is a trope I fall for every time.

The only false-ish note for me was the army stuff - I can't say if I'd have questioned it if I didn't know about the pseudonym, but Strike's childhood experiences were so clearly woven through his character and shaped his actions and reactions, and I just didn't get that same feeling from his army days.

But hey, maybe this particular mystery that Strike had to solve just brought up a lot of his early past, and future cases will touch on the war and its aftermath. If there's a writer out there to whom I'm more than ready to extend the benefit of the doubt, its Rowling.

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