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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Reviews of "The Cuckoo's Calling" and "The Silkworm" by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)

My e-copy of Career of Evil was delivered this morning; it’s the third Cormoran Strike novel written by Robert Galbraith (a.k.a.  J. K. Rowling).  To celebrate its arrival, I thought I’d post my reviews of the first two books in the series – I am a firm believer in reading mysteries featuring the same detective in the order in which they are written.

Review of The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike #1)
4 Stars
Having read the other J. K. Rowling foray into adult fiction, I decided to give her detective mystery novel a try. Cormoran Strike is a private detective hired by John Bristow to investigate the death of his supermodel sister, Lula Landry. Police have ruled Lula’s death a suicide, but John does not believe this version of events. Cormoran and his temporary assistant, Robin Ellacott, eventually uncover the truth.

This is a slow but steady novel. There are no on-the-edge-of-your-seat action sequences or dramatic revelations or unexpected plot twists. There is more focus on characters than plot. Cormoran conducts his investigation methodically, gradually interviewing everyone involved in Lula’s life. Each interviewee gives his/her version of significant events, often inadvertently revealing something important about him/herself. Many have motives for wanting Lula dead, so there are enough possible suspects to muddy the investigation.

The mystery follows the traditional formula with the typical elements: a quirky private detective, a competent sidekick, a high profile crime, obstructionist police, and numerous suspects, red herrings and clues. Information is not withheld from the reader, so he/she is able to solve the case. In the end, there is a confrontation with the guilty party where all the threads of the investigation are connected.

Cormoran and his aptly-named assistant make a good pair. As would be expected, he is intelligent and determined. Not what would normally be considered handsome, he could best be described as a lumbering bear. Life has left him wounded both physically and emotionally, but he has retained an innate decency. Glimpses are given of his past which will undoubtedly be fleshed out in future books. Robin proves to be meticulous and resourceful. The two have an awkward relationship that has its humourous moments.

What is also appealing about Cormoran is his self-reflection. He does not just reflect on that which pertains directly to the case; he makes connections to his own life as well. This particular case makes him realize something about the early death of his mother, “1970s supergroupie Leda Strike”(80): “he could not help seeing his mother as a spiritual sister to [Lula] . . . they had not tethered themselves to life with mortgages and voluntary work, safe husbands and clean-faced dependents: their deaths, therefore, were not classed as ‘tragic,’ in the same way as those of staid and respectable housewives. How easy it was to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life” (374-375).

Though a mystery, the book does tackle the issue of fame and its effects. Prying paparazzi followed Lula’s every move and her phones were hacked by the media. Cormorant is the illegitimate son of a rock star, and that tangential connection to fame does come in useful when trying to get people to talk to him. This focus on fame is rather ironic considering Rowling’s wish to remain anonymous by writing under a pseudonym.

This is a good mystery. It is not for those who want their thrillers to be in the vein of Dan Brown, but anyone looking for a well-written mystery with a carefully constructed plot and well-developed characters would be advised to read this one. Though slow-paced, it remains entertaining throughout.

Review of The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike #2)
4 Stars
I really enjoyed J. K. Rowling’s first mystery, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and The Silkworm is as entertaining. This time Cormoran Strike is hired by Leonora Quine to find her wayward husband, a writer of sexually explicit novels with Gothic overtones. Not surprisingly, the missing person’s case soon becomes a murder investigation when Owen Quine’s body is discovered. What is unusual is that his gruesome murder copies the description of the protagonist’s death in the manuscript of his latest novel.

Because Quine’s novel skewers virtually everyone in his life, there are many suspects with motive. Most also have opportunity. In an Agatha Christie-type ending, Cormoran gathers all the suspects together to reveal the identity of the murderer. The resolution will probably come as a surprise to readers, but everything fits perfectly. Even seemingly innocuous details of the killer’s life mentioned early on prove to be crucial clues.

Characterization is a strong element. All of the suspects are developed as round characters. Cormoran’s back story is developed further as is that of Robin, his assistant. Their relationship is also fleshed out; interesting possibilities exist. Many of the suspects are involved in publishing, so insight is given into the behind-the-scenes machinations of that industry. Two writers, Owen Quine, and his archenemy, Michael Fancourt, are described with wonderful touches of humour: Quine is described as “’a monumentally arrogant, deluded bastard’” and Fancourt’s female characters are “’all temper, tits and tampons.’”

The one aspect of the novel that bothered me is the technique of deliberately withholding Cormoran’s thoughts towards the end when he develops a theory as to the killer. Even his conversations with Robin are censored. I understand the desire to create suspense, but since Cormoran’s thoughts and conversations are given in great detail throughout, the sudden shift away from omniscience jars. It seems that Rowling is aware of this problem because she even has Cormoran address the issue: “He knew that he was acting as though he were held to a professional standard that had ceased to apply when he had left the Special Investigation Branch. Though legally free to gossip to whomever he pleased about his suspicions, he continued to treat them as confidential. . . . the safest way of ensuring that secret information did not leak was not to tell anybody about it.” The problem is, of course, that the reader is hardly going to gossip or divulge secret information!

This is a good mystery with a carefully constructed plot and well-developed characters. Like its predecessor, it is not fast-paced but certainly maintains the reader’s interest throughout. Even after only two installments in the series, Cormoran and Robin are a duo whom the reader feels he/she knows but wants to meet again.