Friday, August 9, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling and The Critical Mom

It's a great read, and I read it in exactly the place one enjoys such page-turning "Krimis" as the Germans call detective novels:  the sunny beaches of Stralsund.  Even though I figured out the identity of the killer somewhere around page sixty (or earlier--no spoilers here; I'm not going to tell you exactly on which page I determined this) and even though I correctly guessed the identity of the body that got recovered from the Thames the moment I read that a corpse had been retrieved, I can honestly state that I loved this book as much as I detested The Casual Vacancy--although, curiously enough, some of the same types whom I found tedious in The Casual Vacancy populate this far more successful whodunit.  Robert Galbraith--aka J.K. Rowling--loves to write about low life: models and street people on drugs or booze who lie and cheat, slip into tawdry one-night stands, and exploit anything that breathes.  But in The Casual Vacancy, my problem was my sense that Rowling loathed these characters, that the only reason they existed on the page was that she wanted to vent her hatred of them.  I couldn't find anyone with whom I wanted to side.
The Cuckoo's Calling had me rooting for the underdog detective who just got dumped by his girfriend and whose hugeness and hairy stomach recall Hagrid--except that he's much smarter than Hagrid.  
Cormoran Strike, The Lord Peter Whimsey of Rowling's first published detective novel, is no Lord Peter.   The illegitimate son of a Mick-Jaggerlike figure and a groupie, Strike has, well, many strikes against him in class-conscious Great Britain, but parries them with equanimity.  Favorite moments of mine occurred whenever some irrepressibly curious character inquired about his paternity. 
"So the DNA test said," was one laconic reply; on another occasion he suggested the questioner call him herself to find out.
He is described as a "pube head," no complimentary definition of which I have been able to find. 
How come I was so sure I knew the killer's identity?  I followed a standard formula:  the killer must be the least likely person.  Apart from the detective himself, there seemed to me no character less likely to commit the crime.  Now, in certain other detective novels I have read--but I'm by no means a connoisseur--I've attempted to apply this formula with dismal results.  I never guessed right before, in other words.   Plotting is less strong in Rowling's detective novel than writing, which remains delightful, especially in snappy dialogues.  
I remember sitting beside a friend who was just reading the last third of the seventh Harry Potter book, knew that I had just finished it, and said, "I want to know whether Severus Snape is a bad guy or a good guy--DON'T TELL ME!"  Now, I couldn't have figured out what made Snape tick until Rowling told me, and I found the answers to his personality and behavior that she provided illuminating and satisfying.  I did not have quite the same sense of satisfaction with The Cuckoo's Calling, although I found the detailing of all the motivations leading to the crime--as well as of motivations of other characters--ingenious and entertaining.  A great beach read, but without the powerful originality of the Harry Potter books.  I'm glad to see J.K Rowling stretching herself as a writer, providing us with a detective with, well, magical powers of intuition, but his handicap feels too contrived as a means of making us sympathize with him, and I have a hunch that crime will not be the genre in which Rowling establishes herself,  I know she's sick of Harry Potter and does not wish to write more sequels (Am I the only one who wants second-and-third-generation tales of Ron's and Harry's and Hermione's children and their exploits, and maybe even another dark wizard?)  
I wonder if fantasy is the chief or the best source of Rowling's inspiration--could she write about another magical world, invoke something as different from the world of Hogwarts as, say, Philip Pullman, and produce another epic?

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