ARMCHAIR BOOK CLUB: Rowling pens a decent crime novel for adults

Penticton books columnist reviews JK Rowling's new crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling.

JK Rowling was recently revealed to be the author of a new crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Like many, I wouldn’t have been tempted to read this book before her lawyer spilled the beans that she was behind the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith.

After the magic of the Harry Potter series, I was disappointed by the unrelenting dreariness of Rowling’s first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy. With her second book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, the question on my mind was: Can Rowling write for adults after all?

Fortunately, this crime novel feels very much like the Rowling I remembered from the Harry Potter series. In fact, the success of her new book comes from the fact that, in a sense, crime writing isn’t that different from the riddles and mysteries taking place at Hogwarts.

In The Cuckoo’s Calling, a supermodel falls from her apartment window. Almost instantly, paparazzi gather around the body, even though it’s the middle of a cold winter night. In a style reminiscent of Agatha Christie, Georges Simenon or even Earl Stanley Gardiner, each of the tenants’ whereabouts are described, and clues point in many directions.

Even so, the police rule the death a suicide. The supermodel’s brother believes otherwise. For reasons initially unclear, the brother hires Cormoran Strike, a huge Hagrid-like detective (who has had one leg blown off in combat years earlier) to find out what really happened to his sister. Even though Strike is down on his luck, sleeping in his office on a camp cot and cooking on a hot plate, he’s reluctant to take on the case. In the end he can’t refuse the money and Strike, along with his office sidekick, begins the unlikely investigation.

Rowling’s writing style is recognizable, including its faults: continual use of adjectives, one-dimensional descriptions of characters, and the jarring overuse of skin colour as a descriptor. At the same time, she is masterful at piecing together complex plot lines, creating imaginative scenes, and throwing in red herrings to make this a fine page turner. She will keep you guessing until the end.

The Casual Vacancy demonstrated that writers are less suited to some genres than others. It’s great for readers that Rowling is now putting her energy into ones that she can master. Of course, who knows what other books she may have penned under pseudonyms?

Apparently Rowling enjoyed the freedom of writing her crime book without the pressure that comes with being a literary super star. I, for one, would like to see more Cormoran Strike detective novels. Maybe the fact that she just successfully sued the lawyer who outed her as Robert Galbraith will motivate her, and give her more fuel for her great imagination.