Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Book Review: The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith (2013)

As everyone knows by now, "Robert Galbraith" is a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling, the creator of the Harry Potter books and, in my opinion, the most successful artist of my generation.  While I am a great admirer of Rowling's, her last book, The Casual Vacancy, had no interest for me.  It was a novel about gossip and ambition in the suburbs, and after reading Rowling's descriptions of the Dursleys for so many years, I had no confidence that she could capture the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie.  Rowling has many gifts, but sympathy for middle-class strivers is not among them.  She is, as far as I can tell, what we Americans refer to as a "snob," and what English people often refer to as a "Tory."  She finds it very difficult to root for -- or even understand -- middle-class people trying to do the best they can with limited gifts.  So I don't think doing a novel about the suburbs was the best use of her unique talents.

On the other hand, as soon as I heard she had written a novel about a private eye, I got excited.  The private eye genre was invented during the last Robber Baron era -- it was a way for guys like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler to write about men of character in the age of Babbitt.  The private eye stands apart from the capitalists, the government stooges who work for the capitalists, and the criminals who are the enemy of both groups.  The private eye follows his own path, which leaves him free to do the Right Thing, no matter how painful that may be to bourgeois sensitivities.  So it was a perfect genre for someone like Rowling -- who admires honor and self-sacrifice, but who has little patience with job-seeking or rules.

Rowling has another quality that made the private-eye genre a good choice for her.  She majored in Classics, and at its best, the Ancient World was all about form -- you get the form right, and any other good qualities you like will follow.  In this book, for example, Rowling is very careful to check off all of the classical requirements of a private eye story.  Her hero, Cormoran Strike, is an eccentric loner -- separated from his beautiful girlfriend, forced to wear a prosthetic leg because of a wartime injury, a guy with no money, no significant business prospects, and few friends -- but a firm sense of Duty and Honor.  As the story begins, he gets a perky and talented secretary -- Robin Ellacott, a 25-year-old version of Hermione who is engaged to a very nice and proper young man, but who really wants to be a detective.  Throw in a mysterious (and very lovely) dead girl, a bunch of eccentric rich people, and a skeptical police force, and you basically have all the elements of your classic private eye story.

And those old guys in the Ancient World knew what they were about -- because in this case, the form really helps the story along.  Hammett, Chandler, and countless others have told private eye stories for a reason -- no matter how banal capitalist culture may appear, we humans never lose our desire to watch a man of principle trying to do the right thing.  From the moment we meet Strike and Robin, we want them to succeed -- to overcome the many obstacles in both the case and their personal lives, and to find out what happened to Lula Landry, a 23-year-old model who apparently killed herself by jumping out a window three months previously.  Rowling is exceptionally good at both male characters and at male-female friendships, and she does a splendid job with Strike and Robin -- they are kindred spirits, but Rowling never pushes the relationship between a middle-aged private investigator and a young secretary who just met each other beyond the bounds of reason.

Rowling has also retained her ability to make her plots run along smoothly.  Almost no writers of my generation appreciate how a well-turned plot -- each event carefully thought out, each scene setting up the next in a logical and compelling manner -- makes any story better.  But Rowling does.  From beginning to end, you are confident that you are in the hands of a master craftsman who knows how to answer one of the most basic of all human requests:  "Tell me a story."

So hurrah for J.K. Rowling, and hurrah for Cormoran Strike.  I'm already looking forward to the next book in the series.

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