Man vs Bookshelf: The Cuckoo’s Calling

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series Man vs Bookshelf
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The problem with these blogs is that some of the time, they take longer to write than it takes to read the books.

This leads to me falling behind in my writing and creates a backlog of books I have to review.

The net result of which is a jumble of plots and points clogging up my mind-head when I come to write my review.

As I write this blog, I have not only finished The Cuckoo’s Calling, but also The Escape by Robert Muchamore. Plus, I’m part way through Richard Matherson’s I Am Legend.

Very confusing.

So, if I start talking about Strike using child spies to defeat vampires, please forgive me.

(Side note. The joke above works on presumed knowledge. If this knowledge is missing, you will not find it funny. As we all know, explaining jokes only makes them funnier. So, what I’ll do is arm you with the three key pieces of knowledge you need to find the above joke funny.

First, Strike is the lead character in the Cuckoo’s Calling.

Second, Robert Muchamore writes about child spies.

Third, I Am Legend is about vampires – more or less.

Now, please return to the joke above and laugh for the appropriate amount of time. Then we’ll continue.

Thank you.)

Now, following that pointless digression, let’s get into it.

Robert Galbraith and Me

I have a suspicion.

I suspect – and bear with me on this – that Robert Galbraith may well be a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling.

No, I’m not mad.

There are many reasons for such suspicions. But here are the top three:

  • The writing style of Cuckoo’s calling is reminiscent of Harry Potter – I.e. lots of adverbs, not least the very annoying ‘coolly.’
  • The book jacket says that Rowling is Galbraith.
  • It’s common knowledge.

If anyone can confirm my suspicion, that would be good.

Whatever the case, I will not be discussing Rowling now. I have all the Potter books on my shelves, and I don’t want to waste good copy ahead of time.

As for Robert Galbraith, I had heard of Cormoran Strike but always held off reading any.

I don’t read a lot of detective fiction and, when I do, it’s all by Harlen Coben. This because they are funny, fast-paced, and my mother made me pick one up one time.

I only considered reading Cuckoo when, a few months ago, I decided to write a PI novel myself.

Soon after, my parents spotted The Cuckoo’s Calling in a charity shop and bought it for me.

In the end, I didn’t read it. I did write the first draft of my PI novel but shelved it in favour of Poor Choices. I may go back to it at some point, but then there seemed to be no need for reading Cuckoo. Enjoyment, it seems, never entered my mind.

Then the challenge began, and I’ve picked up Cuckoo early. I don’t know why, but does it matter? Point is I read it.

So let’s get into the bloody review.

The Cuckoo’s Calling

As I say, I’m not much into detective novels, but I much prefer your non-police based murder mysteries, like this.

And, almost surprisingly, I did like this book. A lot. Enough, in fact, to give it a 4/5 on Goodreads. As well as marking as ‘want to read’ the next couple of books in the series. Although, as a result of this challenge, I won’t be able to for some years.

So what made it so good? I suppose there are two things to look at here, “the Detective” and “the Mystery”.

Let’s do that.

The Detective

Picture Shows: Cormoran Strike (TOM BURKE) – (C) Bronte Film & TV Ltd – Photographer: Steffan Hill

Cormoran Strike is your textbook detective.

In fact, if you wrote a detective traits checklist he would nail it on every account. He has:

  • Internal damage. See: his upbringing, his mental ex-fiancee, his rock star father.
  • External damage. See: his very literal lack of a leg, his bruises as a result of his break up
  • No money. See: uh, his lack of money. He’s living in his office on a camp bed, for one. Readers must hate detectives with money. I don’t know why.
  • No girlfriend. See: his break up at the beginning of the book. This allows him to be a classic loner and opens up more avenues for sexual tension. Yippee, say sex craved readers everywhere

This laundry list of traits is often seen as a requirement for good detectives, but I have a problem with it.

Writers use these troupes to try and build a character that is, in truth, only a vehicle for the plot. It’s fake, and see through.

That’s what I like about Harlen Coben’s Myron Bolitar. He’s different. He’s healthy. He’s wealthy. He has two loving parents. He even has friends (gasp).

He has a distinctive personality. He doesn’t feel like a blank-faced character who could be anyone, dropped into an interesting plot.

Because that causes problems. Your cookie cutter detectives do not work. It doesn’t matter how good your plot is. We need a character we can invest in.

Strike, by the skill of J.K.’s writing, avoids these problems.

He is more than the sum of his parts. He is troubled and funny, and he can be nasty and compassionate, and he’s smart and, at times, unsure and a bit socially awkward.

We, the audience, empathise with him. We like following him on his investigation. We want him to succeed.

That’s what makes a great detective.

Picture Shows: Robin Ellacott (HOLLIDAY GRAINGER) – (C) Bronte Film & TV Ltd – Photographer: Steffan Hill

It’s also worth mentioning the sidekick, I suppose.

Robin (the female kind, not the friend of Batman kind, or the bird) is a decent character. She’s intelligent, she’s attractive, and she has a childlike awe with the workings of our detective. On account of wanting to be one as a child.

The only problem is she doesn’t get a lot of screen time.

Watson and Holmes seem to be joined at the hip, and this is often the case with detectives and their accomplices.

Strike, though, does most of his work alone. That meant we don’t get to see much of Robin and it was harder to form an attachment to her.

What we got was good enough though, and I’m sure she’ll get more time in later books.

The Mystery

I said before that a mystery, however good, is still boring without a decent detective.

This is also true in reverse.

A good detective cannot cover up a boring mystery.

Luckily, Robert/ J.K. has worked hard on his/her plot.

It’s a long book, and I did fear there might be a lot of unnecessary scenes in there that did not add to the mystery.

This would not be unusual for the author. (I don’t care what she says, there is no way The Order of the Phoenix needed to be 8,300,000 pages).

But, in this case, the plotting felt tight, and the pace was perfect, despite it being carried out over 550 pages.

The mystery and client arrive early and, from then on, pretty much everything is relevant to the case.

Even when Strike goes to his ex’s house or his nephew’s party, it is always brought back to the mystery.

Chekhov said: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

This is good advice, and something Rowling has always been great at following.

Here, things you think cannot possibly be relevant, become so. J.K. is, as she has always been, great at foreshadowing.

And so the mystery rattles along at high pace. The story, led by its interesting detective, becomes quite the page turner and, until the end, I had no idea who did it.

Many suspects are set up and, until the final confrontation, at least four people still could have done it.

This reveal and final confrontation also work fantastically.

This is something I was not expecting because the plot is so good.

I know that sounds an odd thing to say, but bear with me.

In mysteries where the plot is so fantastic, the journey often becomes everything. And, as a result, the reveal is a letdown, no matter whodunnit.

This has been my experience with a couple of Coben books and also with the Netflix series Scream. All brilliant works, but with endings that failed to live up to what came before.

With Cuckoo, though, the ending does stack up to the rest of the book. The explanation is well done. It works. And I was not disappointed by the way it panned out.

So, we learn. Great detective + great mystery + effective reveal = great book.

Once this challenge is over (assuming we are not living in a dystopian post-apocalyptic world by then) I look forward to reading the next books in the series.

One more thing

I don’t like Rugby.

It’s nowt to feel guilty about. It just means I steer away from writing about it in my books.

I think Robert/ J.K. should have stuck away from Football for the same reason.

At one point Strike sits down on a Saturday, turns on the telly and watches the Arsenal vs Tottenham game at three.

Ehhhh, no?

In England (And this is set in modern-day England) we have a ban on showing Football matched between three and five.

It’s a real pain in the arse.

So, J.K., next time, maybe, do a bit more research?

Or, leave football out of it all together.

That’s cool.

Other than that wicked book, thanks.

Next time

Spoiler alert above on this.

I’ve already said I’ve finished the Escape, and I’ll get into writing about that real soon, I promise.

See you then.

Series Navigation<< Man vs Bookshelf: Clough: The AutobiographyMan vs Bookshelf: The Escape >>
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International worst selling author Mark Ayre has been writing since before he could pick up a pen (somehow). Recently he is taking the internet by storm with his Man vs Bookshelf Challenge where he aims to read the 210 books on his bookshelf in 210 weeks, reviewing them on his blog and Goodreads along the way. He is also publishing books on Amazon, his most recent being the family suspense novel, Poor Choices, which you can find here.

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