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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Flying Directly Into the Cuckoo's Nest

By Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
717 KB (464 pages)
Mulholland Books (April 30, 2013)

Someplace on high, the spirit of Agatha Christie is smiling down on J.K. Rowling these days. Probably the spirits of Ngaio Marsh, Dot Sayers and Margery Allingham as well. The Cuckoo's Calling, written by Rowling under the pseudonym "Robert Galbraith," is as good a "tea cozy" mystery as any written by those grande dames in their prime.

I write mysteries myself. If some day I manage a book that is even three-quarters as good as this one, the undertaker will need two weeks to get the smile off my face for my funeral.

"Wait just a damn minute, Wallace," I can hear you say out there. "I thought you were an Elmore Leonard/George V. Higgins kind of guy, the sort of mystery fan who likes to see murder in the hands of people who do it for a living?  I thought you liked your crime stories from the perpetrators' perspective, the kind of stories where the most common solution to problems is to blow them away with a .44 magnum?"

If that's what you said, you're right: I like noir-ish thrillers with a nihilistic edge, in which the protagonist falls victim to his own greed, lust or arrogance, and his struggle to pull himself out of the morass just digs him in deeper.  I spent 30-plus years writing about La Cosa Nostra, the Russian Mafiya, Chinese Triads, Vietnamese microchip robbery rings, street gangs, prison crime syndicates and many, many drug dealers and their organizations. During that time I ran across dozens of cops that abused their authority, took money to ignore criminals or simply looked the other way when serious illegality occurred. 

All those years researching all those crimes, criminals and law enforcement officers has convinced me that the doomed losers of novels like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Mr. Paradise correspond more closely to the reality I am familiar with than the duplicitous, well-bred, public school-educated killers in Have His CarcaseMore Work for the Undertaker, or Murder on the Orient Express.

But I also like horror stories and occasionally write them, even though I don't believe in ghosts, witches or demons.  And I like sword and sorceror yarns like the ones written by Robert Howard, even though the Hyperborian Age never actually existed except in Howard's mind. I once spent most of a summer reading everything I could find by Andre Norton, despite the fact that I have never met a human being who could use ESP to communicate with animals. And I read so much science fiction by A. E. Van Vogt -- whose mutant humans had supernormal abilities that went far beyond simple ESP -- that I tackled Science and Sanity, the tome on general semantics and non-Aristotelian thought that inspired much of Van Vogt's work.

What I am saying here is, sure: my preference is for a story in which the criminal is just another working class slob toiling at a particular variant of capitalism where a business mistake can have more disastrous consequences than getting a slap on the wrist from the Securities Exchange Commission or being fired by the board of directors at a shareholder meeting.  But that doesn't keep me from enjoying the occasional locked room mystery, or a Freeman Wills Croft-style thriller in which the solution depends on, say, reconciling discrepancies between ship and railway timetables.
J.K. Rowling, best known for her Harry Potter books,
has written a "tea cozy" mystery story that is about as good as any on the market today.

The Cuckoo's Calling, Rowling's latest, is one of those cozies that noir aficionados like Raymond Chandler are inclined to deride. There is no criminal gang that sets in motion the events of the novel, no obvious motive that immediately explains the villain's motivation. The police are pretty bright in this story, although their eagerness to clear the case leads them to miss some fairly significant evidence.

In a way, it is a throwback to the sort of suspense novel that Agatha Christie used to write -- except that Rowling is considerably hipper than Christie and populates her story with such exotic Twenty First Century creatures as supermodels, rock stars and gangster rappers from L.A. -- all of which hadn't been invented when Christie was banging out novels and shorter fiction about Miss Marple, Ariadne Oliver, Hercule Poirot, and Tommy and Tuppence.

Having identified it as a throwback, it is worth noting that The Calling of the Cuckoo is a very, VERY good throwback -- better in many ways than a lot of the stuff by Allingham, Marsh and Christie.

There isn't a single false note in the entire novel: the characters are just about as fully realized as any I have ever come across in a crime thriller; Rowling's plot -- though devious -- is highly believable; her characters each have distinct voices, pet phrases and vocabularies which give them depth and add immensely to the story's verisimilitude; her inside understanding of police agencies, the military, the daily dealings of celebrities is acute; and she  uses a light touch in developing the back stories of our characters, but tells us precisely what we need to know about them.

Her private detective, Comoran Strike, is a broken man, not because he lost his leg in Afghanistan, (although he did) or because his mother was a celebrated rock 'n' roll groupie that died of a heroin overdose (which she was); No, what has put Strike on the edge of the precipice is the fact that he in love with a woman who is as fraudulent as the Piltdown Man. As the novel begins, he is down to only one client, thrown out of his ex-girlfriend's apartment and sleeping on a camp bed in the back of the office he is soon to be evicted from.

Rowling sketches Strike with a deft hand, making him one of those memorable characters that the reader will remember long after forgetting whodunit.

Strike's temporary secretary and dog's-body, Robin, is just as finely drawn. The pair -- a decidedly odd couple -- enhance each other's strengths as individuals and compensate for each other's weaknesses. Together, they make a formidable team that should have the reader thinking "sequel, if you please" before they get very far into the story.  And though Robin ends up reluctantly becoming much more intimately involved in her new employer's personal life than she intends to, Rowling does not put the two into a romance, even though it would have been easy to do so.

Even the conclusion of the story is on the money: the villain comes as a surprise, despite the neat trail of clues Rowling leaves, and the denouement is thrilling enough to make the reader worry whether our flawed protagonist will come through it unharmed.

Rowling gets it all one hundred percent right. As one of Harry Potter's instructors might well put it: "Well done, J.K. Rowling!"

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