the cuckoos calling

For anyone who has read Harry Potter, it makes complete sense that J.K. Rowling would try her hand at detective fiction (of course no one would have guessed she would write under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith). With the earlier Harry Potter books having the overall structure of classic whodunits – the major arcs of the first three novels of the series involved finding a culprit with a limited amount of evidence – and the sheer amount of intricate plotting and laying down of clues throughout the seven books, Rowling has already proven that she is a master at mystery writing. Therefore, The Cuckoo’s Calling – the first in a series of a detective novels featuring detective Cormoran Strike and his temporary receptionist turned sidekick Robin – seems the natural progression in Rowling’s writing career.

Their relationship progresses gradually from professional employer/employee to hesitant friends. Robin’s characterisation is not as thorough as Strike’s, although I imagine this is because it is the first part in the series and it was more important to establish Strike’s character. I expect there’ll be more insight into Robin in future novels especially since Rowling is so good at characterisation. Most mystery novels today have certain elements which seems to have become prerequistites, including impossibly high-future-of-the-world-hangs-in-the-balance stakes, break neck fast pace and plot twists that come out of nowhere. By these standards,The Cuckoo’s Calling is unusual. It is a slowly developing novel which focuses more on quiet observations and spends alot of time getting to know the wide range of characters instead of moving at a feverish pace. In that sense, it is more old fashioned and reminscent of Agatha Christie novels. But despite the slow progression of the story, reading it never turns into a slog. It is engrossing and quietly gripping, and you always have the urge to find out what will happen next.

Rowling’s lyrical and Dickensian prose adds to the feeling of nostalgia that permeates the writing. The quaint style of writing is sharply contrasted against the themes explored in the novel, which are very contemporary. For instance, there is an examination of fame from the other side, and of the paparazzi culture which has changed the way famous people are viewed by the public. Issues of socioeconomics and class dynamics (which were a big theme in Rowling’s previous and much darker book, The Casual Vacancy) are also explored here, in the different ways they colour the characters’ motivations, which is an interesting feature to include in a mystery novel.

Of course, the most important element in a mystery novel is the mystery itself, which Rowling handles with great skill. There are plenty of red herrings and false trails, but at the same time she lays down enough clues so that it’s obvious, in retrospect, who the murderer is, which is much more satisfying that a plot twist that comes out of nowhere and is intended only for shock value. Rowling smartly juggles a whole cast of potential suspects, having clear motives as well as alibis. Even though Rowling hasn’t done anything groundbreaking in the novel, she has used the traditional mystery novel formula effectively. She employs the usual elements of the genre, including an information to each suspect in detail and an explosion towards the end which explains everything that occured, but uses them with more cleverness than most mystery writers of today.

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