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Book Review: J.K. Rowling's 'The Cuckoo's Calling'

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Publishers, libraries and book stores like to pigeonhole writers into neat little boxes. Write one fantasy novel and you wear that mantle for the rest of your career. Same goes for romance and science fiction and on and on. Some writers happily wear their personal albatross, others fight it.

J.K. Rowling is an author who fights it.

Upon finishing her work on the Harry Potter series, the most successful literary creation of our lifetime, Rowling could have easily disappeared, hidden herself away like a Salinger. Instead she came back with her first novel, The Casual Vacancy, which clearly and aggressively states I am not a young adult author.

I pity the parent who picked that book up for their young reader, imagining another tale of Hogwarts. There were some rude awakenings there and some explaining to do.

For her next novel, Rowling has shown herself to be even more rascally. For almost five months she has been wearing a disguise, pretending to be a man named Robert Galbraith, a mystery detective writer inspired by his time in the British military police. And this Robert has created his first mystery novel, an impressive work entitled, The Cuckoo’s Calling.

I’ve never understood the whole pseudonym road that so many writers go down. Many times it is done by unknown writer protecting something I am uncertain of, creating a book by another unknown writer, giving their book really a second mountain to deal with in its possible rise to success. In today’s congested book world, writers shouldn’t give their books an additional obstacle. 

I also especially laugh when I see an author who happily explains in their amazon description or on Twitter that they are using a pseudonym and what their real name is. So what? If the mystery can be broken so easily, why create it? Is this a tax loophole I was not aware of? The literary equivalent of the Cayman Islands and Swiss bank accounts?

Robert Galbraith was created because Rowling wanted to see what people think of her writing without the burden of a boy wizard. Fair enough, I’ll give her that one. But now the wizard has left Diagon Alley and we are all in on the secret. So what is the book about?

Lula Landry is a supermodel who one winter evening apparently jumped from her apartment suite to her death. It was deemed a suicide by the cops and the papers. Months later her brother John Bristow brings the case to detective Cormoran Strike, convinced that her sister was actually murdered. Cormoran takes the case, not because he believes the brother, but that he needs the money.

Who is Cormoran Strike?

Every great literary detective has their own unique trademark. Miss Marple is old. Poirot is Belgian. Sherlock is... well... Sherlock, for example. But J.K. couldn’t be happy with one trademark for Cormoran Strike. No, she heaps things onto his description. Simply being “The boy who lived” is not enough for Strike. Strike is running a failing detective business, he is out of shape, he is missing a leg thanks to his time in Afghanistan, he is newly single. And did I mention he is the son of a famous rock star?

If we as readers have a hard time putting our finger on what makes Strike Strike, I can’t imagine what the character must feel.

So often today’s mysteries can be confused with action adventures as heroes run from one location to another while bodies pile up. That is not how Strike works and this is where I dig this character. See what makes his book and Rowling’s mystery writing standout is that it is all about the dialogue. She is a master at this. Strike’s talent is in listening and asking the right questions. He knows how to manipulate a conversation, not tricking the suspects, just getting exactly what he needs hidden in a paragraph. These interviews with the questionable individuals from Lula’s past—druggy hipsters, fashion designers, other models, lawyers, etc.—are what makes this mystery shine. These conversations are meant to be read slowly, carefully, to be studied. Sadly, I am betting it is these great moments that will be edited out when the inevitable movie is adapted.

I’m sorry for Rowling that her secret is out. I’m sure she is disappointed as she was hoping to release another book next summer under the same pseudonym. But I would never have known about this well-written mystery if it wasn’t for this publishing oops moment. Sometimes it is a good thing when the owl escapes from the bag.

Current State contributor Scott Southard is author of the novels  "A Jane Austen Daydream" and “Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare." More of his writing can be found at his blog, The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

Current State contributor Scott D. Southard is author of A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors, and Megan. Scott received his Master's degree in writing from the University of Southern California. More of his writing can be found at his blog, The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard.
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