Friday, 13 September 2013


The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith
(pseudonym for J.K. Rowling)

Ms Rowling has been a busy girl, producing a new novel within a year of her first foray into adult fiction, ‘The Casual Vacancy’.  I was disappointed in that book (see November 2012 review below) but feel that this latest story has more meat on its bones, more to offer the reader in plot and characterisation – and certainly more optimism than ‘The Casual Vacancy’s’ singularly unpleasant storyline.
This time, despite a bewilderingly complicated narrative of events and a tendency at times to lay on the drama with a trowel, Ms Rowling has produced a very respectable thriller.
Cormoran Strike is the illegitimate son of a SuperGroupie and a notoriously hedonistic Rock Star.  The groupie died of an overdose, and Rocker dad is famously disinterested in any of his progeny.  Cormoran has had a predictably chaotic childhood but distinguished himself when he entered the military police arm of the Defence forces, winning a medal for saving lives in Afghanistan – and losing a leg in the process.
Since his medical discharge from the Army, life has been unkind to Cormoran:  the business he established as a Private Investigator is failing;  he has been kicked out of the flat and the life he had with his uppercrust girlfriend Charlotte;  he owes money everywhere; he is overweight, unfit, down and out – in short, he’s a big fat mess.
Enter Robin, newly engaged and working as a temp until she gets a job befitting her formidable skills as a SuperP.A.  She is sent by her agency to Cormoran’s office for two weeks, only to wonder why she is there when it is patently clear that Cormoran doesn’t have enough work – or means – to employ her;  plus he’s camping in his office because he can’t afford to stay anywhere else. 
Until an expensive-looking lawyer visits the next day to hire Cormoran’s services.
John Bristow is the adoptive brother of very famous super model Lula Landry, whose suicide three months before caused huge amounts of publicity world-wide – but Bristow refuses to believe that she killed herself:  she was murdered.  He will pay whatever it costs to prove that Lula would never take her own life;  he loved his little sister and he wants her killer brought to justice, and here is a hefty advance to set everything in motion.
Things are looking up!  Cormoran’s spirits rise with his bank balance;  there is now money in Petty Cash for Private Eye and Temp to have Tea and bikkies whenever the mood takes them, and an amazing change in his social status as Bristow arranges for him to meet Lula’s former friends and associates.  From being on the bones of his proverbial one day, he is dining and clubbing with the Beautiful People the next.
Ms Rowling writes well about the fashion world and the seamy side of beauty.  She has a great ear for dialogue and idiom – even Orstrylian gets a mention! – and she is very careful with her plotting.  She does tend to overwrite more than a little, though, one fine example being when Cormoran finally reveals to the killer that The Game is Up:  it takes sixteen pages, with the killer snarling at strategic points ‘where is your proof?’ and ‘you’ll never prove a thing!’ before finally lunging at our amputee hero with a knife, causing this reader to shriek  ‘and about flaming time, too!’ 
Wouldn’t you know though that Cormoran has a trick or two up his sleeve – not to mention a prosthesis next to his chair -  and all works out well in the end, causing us all to think that perhaps there might be another opus featuring Cormoran and Robin, both endearing characters in their different ways.
I shall welcome it if that’s the case but have a tiny request:  Ms Rowling’s characters were ‘besuited’ and ‘bejeaned’ more than once ( I am presently betrackpanted as I type) – could one hope that she finds a less irritating way in the next book to describe what her characters are wearing?  (Just asking.)

The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling

J. K. Rowling is known the world over for her wonderful Harry Potter series, one of the great morality tales of the last hundred years and the books that brought children back to reading.  She is a fitting companion to Tolkien and Lewis.  She is the deserving recipient of numerous prestigious literary awards and charitable causes and could rest easily on her laurels:  instead, she has produced her first adult novel, eagerly awaited by us all.
And it was hugely disappointing – at least for me.
We are in the land of the Muggles now.  There is no magic to transform us and bear us away to the delights and frights of Hogwarts;  there is not a vestige of humour to leaven the bleakness of Ms. Rowling’s plot or the singular nastiness of her characters;  everyone to a man (or woman) is morally bankrupt, and proud of it, and the ending is as tragic as the beginning.
Local counsellor Barry Fairbrother dies of a brain aneurysm in the car park of the Pagford Golf Club, where he and his wife were about to have dinner to celebrate their 19th wedding anniversary.  His shocking and unexpected demise means that there will now be a vacancy on the Pagford Parish Council, run as a mini-fiefdom by Howard Rollison, the local Deli owner.  He prides himself that he is the nearest thing to a mayor that pretty, picturesque Pagford has, and as soon as he installs his son Miles as Barry’s replacement they can both carry the vote to rid the village of the financial responsibility of The Fields, a dreadful housing estate that encroaches their borders, thanks to a land deal of fifty years before.  The Fields is full of lay-abouts, losers and junkies, and the particular eyesore that Howard wants to be rid of is the Addiction clinic which, because it is within their rural boundary, is Pagford’s expense to bear.  Howard never liked Barry anyway (because Barry was a product of The Fields);  good riddance to bad rubbish.
Howard is shocked to find that several other people, all for different reasons,  are eying the vacancy as well and have put themselves up for candidacy.   The ensuing election battle is the main impetus of the story, pitting various factions against each other and revealing secrets and sorrows that should have stayed hidden. 
The late counsellor Fairbrother is revealed as being more of a positive influence on everyone than at first thought, especially when his surviving friends and neighbours prove themselves to be much the lesser when it comes to the crunch of filling his very big shoes – not just on the council, but as a mentor to the local youth, particularly those from The Fields.  This is a very negative book – not because it is poorly written, (how could it be?  Ms Rowling has proved her literary credentials time and again) but because she doesn’t give the reader any hope that the bleak literary portrait she paints will ever change. 
Hope:  that vital and most cherished human emotion – the reader needs to feel hopeful of a better outcome in this story as much as in real life;  what a shame Ms Rowling doesn’t allow us that privilege.  Maybe it’s me and my yen for happy endings, but give me Hogwarts and its denizens any old time, for  Ms Rowling’s Muggles aren’t nice to be near.       

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