Let me begin by saying that J.K. Rowling’s second foray into the world of adult literature is significantly more developed and pleasing than her first. The Casual Vacancy, which was promoted as “a big novel about a small town,” was disappointingly adult. Characters had little or no redeeming qualities, the socio-political messages were overwhelming, and expletives ruled the day, which detracted from the significance of their use. What I anticipated from Rowling in TCV was, in fact, a novel closer to Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I rank as one of the top five contemporary novels I’ve ever read. Instead, I was disappointed. And so, upon hearing that her new book was a mystery written under a pseudonym, I wondered if this was going to be another TCV situation.
I am happy to say that this particular novel was exponentially more enjoyable than TCV.
What made me give Rowling another chance was the fact that The Cuckoo’s Calling is a mystery. And let me tell you, after the magic of Harry Potter’s world and the sheer awfulness of TCV, giving her another chance was a risk. In this case, it paid off.
The main character, Cormoran Strike, is a private detective, which eases the complications of writing about the inner workings of the Metropolitan Police. He is also recently separated from a long-time (and rather emotionally abusive) girlfriend and he has a prosthetic leg. So far, he’s a pretty interesting chap but, were it only Strike on the case of the supermodel’s suicide, I would probably have been less impressed.
The saving grace of Cuckoo is Strike’s temp-turned-amateur–detective-and-secretary Robin. From the very first, Robin was my favorite character. She sparkles like her new engagement ring and, in true romantic fashion, sees only beauty in London. Until she meets Strike, at which point reality seemingly crashes back on her.
What I adore about Robin, however, is the way Rowling (I mean, Robert Galbraith) develops her throughout the novel. Initially, you can feel the tension between the jaded Strike and his beautiful, excited, naive temp, but as the plot thickens, Robin develops several more dimensions. Her new fiancé doesn’t like her working with Strike. She doesn’t seem to agree with him. They may or may not be having more arguments about her career choices. And yet she chooses to remain with Strike longer than she was supposed to. The subtlety of Robin’s development really makes the piece.
The weakness of Cuckoo for this reader was the same trap TCV fell into early on: overuse of expletives. I do not like to think of myself as a prude, and I can appreciate a few good curses now and again. In fact, sometimes I like a character or two who’s entire existence is based on their ability to swear at appropriate moments. What I do not understand or appreciate is overuse of cursing, especially when it’s f***ing. And this is one of the same problems she got me with the first time.
Here’s the dilemma as I see it. When a character swears, it should be used to emphasize an emotional response. Occasionally, it might be a character who swears whenever (s)he feels like it. But it’s very difficult for me to read a character who uses obscenities as a verbal crutch. While the profanities were initially used to great effect (it’s a crime story, so I do expect some rough characters/language/situations), after about the halfway point, it started to get a little grating. I don’t need dialogue to be filled with repetitions of a word that I personally find offensive. The occasional use? Sure. A moment when Strike is really upset and starts yelling at someone? I’d be surprised if he didn’t have some choice language. But overusing it as nearly every other word was a little tiring.
But there is a plus side to this book: it’s actually a lot of fun. For the amount of complaining I’m sure you’re taking away from this review, I had a pretty good time with it. I’ll admit that I did predict the killer, but there were still some fun twists and turns, and I enjoyed the characters of Cuckoo far more than any characters in TCV. An Agatha Christie-esque style of giving the readers clues also helped intensify the complex search for truth. Strike is better about explaining what he finds than Poirot ever was, though, so you can still have a chance at solving the case.
And let me just say that the ending of Cuckoo was possibly my favorite part. For the sake of anyone who wants to read it, I’m not going to spoil it, but it made me really like Strike and Robin. And I can honestly say that when the second Strike mystery comes out, I’d like to read it. Really.
And on a final note, here’s one of the lines that made me laugh out loud:
“Why do women do it? Cuckoo, too… she wasn’t stupid – actually, she was razor-sharp – so what did she see in Evan Duffield? I’ll tell you,” he said, without pausing for an answer. “It’s that wounded-poet crap, that soul-pain shit, that too-much-of-a-tormented-genius-to-wash bollocks. Brush your teeth, you little bastard. You’re not f***ing Byron.”
For more information on Cuckoo or to find a local independent bookstore near you, check out IndieBound.