It’s hard to review the new mystery book, Cuckoo’s Calling, without seeing it as a J.K. Rowling novel. I keep wanting to make inside jokes about Hogwarts and Voldemort, or mention the lack of magic, or post pictures of myself in Harry Potter scenarios. And that’s probably a big part of why Rowling decided to publish her new mystery book under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Because she’s sick of a rabid press, and because she didn’t want her new book judged against the standard of Harry, like her last book, Casual Vacancy, was.
Taken on its own, as the work of the recently-outed-as-fictional Robert Galbraith, here’s what I have to say about Cuckoo’s Calling: It’s an always entertaining, often insightful, occasionally funny, very good mystery. It’s not something I’m going to recommend to every person who walks into my shop. But here’s who will like it: mystery lovers (duh), adventure fans (Jack Reacher, etc.), chick lit readers, vacationers looking for beach books, and anyone who wants, not necessarily great literature, but a really good story. It’s not for everyone, but its reach is still pretty impressive.
But Rowling didn’t just publish under a pseudonym to avoid Potter jokes from lazy bloggers like myself. The destructive influence of celebrity, fame and paparazzi is a huge theme in this book, and Rowling, probably the most famous author in the world, has more than her share of experience with it. Refreshingly, she doesn’t exactly vilify the press (there are no Rita Skeeters in Cuckoo’s Calling), but she does show the massive erosion of character and personhood that too often comes from media coverage and surveillance. The death central to her story is that of a supermodel who’s assumed to have killed herself because she had a history with mental instability and drug abuse. The press puts their story together quickly and incorrectly and, even in their unrelenting investigation, oversimplifies the facts. The fact that they’re feeding on the reputations of real people seems to escape their notice. In a tragic coincidence, news of Rowling’s pseudonym broke in the same news cycle as the death of Glee star Cory Monteith — and the press unfortunately didn’t treat his story with any more dignity than Rowling’s fictional press would’ve.
Cuckoo’s Calling, like any good mystery, has a labyrinth of a plot. It kept me engaged and guessing through the entire book. But, unlike a lot of mysteries published today, that labyrinth is actually headed somewhere, and, once the solution is riddled out, everything makes sense and fits together neatly. Of course, Rowling is a master at this: It’s like when the trunk is opened and (Harry Potter spoiler alert) you realize Barty Crouch has been Mad Eye Moody all along — it all makes sense in hindsight, but you didn’t really see it coming.
What stands out in Rowling’s novel that’s lacking in so much popular fiction today is a real development of character. This talent is why we loved Potter, and it was the driving force behind Rowling’s last book, The Casual Vacancy (coming out in paperback next week). The difference between Cuckoo and Vacancy (click here for my review of that book) is that, although Rowling still sees a lot of evil and selfishness in the world, and still has little to no tolerance for it, Cuckoo’s Calling has hope, where Casual Vacancy had none. Cuckoo’s detective and Girl Friday certainly don’t have the innocence of Potter, Weasely and Granger, but they do try to do what’s right and, while they aren’t always rewarded for it, they’re not consistently punished like those poor battered characters in Casual Vacancy.
The bottom line is, Rowling understands plot, and her characters are real and layered. We may all want more magic, but we’re lucky that she’s still giving us stories, no matter which name she uses to publish.