Despite how it took me a grievously long time to start this book, I was not the least bit surprised that once I started, I couldn’t stop. It sat in my Kindle for over a year, but once I opened it, I finished it in ten days.
Full disclosure first on my adoration of J.K. Rowling’s other works: yes, the Harry Potter series shaped a whole decade of my life, but even I didn’t expect how much her adult novels would strike home with me, be everything I want in a story now, the same way Sorceror’s Stone did when I read it as an eleven-year-old. The Casual Vacancy blew me away in ways I hadn’t even realized were possible, surpassing my wildest expectations. There were no signs of the over-simplification of morality or free will that’s garnered some criticism of Harry Potter.
And The Casual Vacancy felt like such a magnum opus, drawing as it did on J.K. Rowling’s own experience bouncing between two class extremes: from welfare to millions. But it wasn’t just a treatise on class issues; it’s a wonderful study of parents vs. teenagers, families, communities, even the human condition. She pulled heartstrings I didn’t even know I had, making me weep for the most unlikely characters.
But I didn’t know quite what to expect from a mystery novel she wrote under an alias; what her motivation might be, what kind of writing she wanted to do without the burdensome expectations of her own name headlining it. For all I’ve loved her books with every particle of my being from a young age, I still don’t feel like I know what drives her creatively, now that she’s finished her seven-part fantasy series and then a much more serious work about the population of a small English town.
I’m still not ready to answer that question after finishing The Cuckoo’s Calling, but I do think I know what to reliably expect in any J.K. Rowling book, whatever the genre: a brilliant array of well-formed characters, so true to life they’re practically ready to walk off the page. That’s the one thing all her books have in common, and that’s what makes them such a joy to read.
What goes hand-in-hand with that skill is that she’s remarkable at portraying different social classes. Her protagonist, detective Comoran Strike, travels from homeless shelters to fashion designer studios, as well as the homes of multi-millionaires, dissolute young celebrities, and the stodgy upper-class, along with his own sister’s middle-class establishment. All of the settings feel authentic.
I’m not a huge mystery novel reader (as I’ve reviewed in this blog, I’ve read a couple of Sue Grafton’s novels, some Peter Wimsey), but never before did I get the picture of a detective’s life the way J.K. Rowling portrayed it. There were some remarkable insights, especially into what kind of talents and skills you need to succeed. I love how Strike’s so clearly competent at his job, despite dealing with personal upheaval.
The secondary character, Robin, is also a great demonstration of a young, capable woman with initiative. And I am so excited to see that the book title includes “Comoran Strike Book 1,” which does seem to promise more on the way.
Have I mentioned yet this is an A+ mystery? Because it is. The set-up sucks you right in with all kinds of suspense, and even after you learn the name of the murdered woman — well, I was kept thoroughly suspended all the way through. I never saw the revelation coming. In fact, I was mortified to learn the murderer was the same one I’d had the most sympathy for, not long before. We also got a pretty detailed picture of the victim, despite how we never met her; I was doubly sad about her death by the end.
As for the writing style, I’m impressed, because I think if I hadn’t been tipped off, I wouldn’t have guessed that it was her — not even that Mr. Galbraith was an admirer and imitator, either consciously or unconsciously. In The Casual Vacancy, there were many lines I recognized as 100% her, I would have recognized them anywhere (most memorably, Andrew ate his Weetabix and burned with hatred); but she didn’t give herself away like that anywhere in The Cuckoo’s Calling, as far as I can tell.
But just because the prose didn’t sound like her, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t masterful and poignant. Let me show you.
No spoilers now, just some passages that particularly struck me in their insight, first of London, and then to the reality of how people judge the lives of others (especially women) who don’t conform to what’s considered a respectable life, and how vulnerable they are to a violent end that won’t be investigated.
It was nearly eight before he returned to the office. This was the hour when he found London most lovable; the working day over, her pub windows were warm and jewel-like, her streets thrummed with life, and the indefatigable permanence of her aged buildings, softened by the street lights, became strangely reassuring. We have seen plenty like you, they seemed to murmur soothingly, as he limped along Oxford Street carrying a boxed-up camp bed. Seven and a half million hearts were beating in close proximity in this heaving old city, and many, after all, would be aching far worse than his. Walking wearily past closing shops, while the heavens turned indigo above him, Strike found solace in vastness and anonymity.
Tonight, though, he could not help seeing his mother as a spiritual sister to the beautiful, needy, and depressive girl who had broken apart on a frozen road, and to the plain, homeless outsider now lying in a chilly morgue. Leda, Lula, and Rochelle had not been women like Lucy, or his Aunt Joan; they had not taken every reasonable precaution against violence or chance; 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.