Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Cuckoo's Calling (2013)

Shakespeare once said that "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts (web)".  This kind of sentiment can always be chalked up to the idea that to a carpenter everything looks like a nail.  Still, it is possible for a person to wear more than one hat.  You get them every now and then, like versatile freaks of nature.

A good case in point is J.K. Rowling.  She doesn't need much in the way of an introduction.  She made Harry Potter after all.  What more is there to say?  For a fan of Hogwarts the answer might be that there really isn't any need to say more.  You have her books and their adaptations.  That seems to be all the fans want.  If there's any truth to that, then the bad news is that Ms. Rowling must be one of those restless sorts by nature.

If I were to say that she had an idea for a new book series, one different from the exploits of Harry and his friends, would you be interested?  Even if the answer is no, it doesn't change the fact that in 2013 Hachette Books published The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith.  It came and went while making barely a ripple on the popular front.  There was no fanfare, and the publishing hype was the modest sort you tend to expect for old mid-list fiction authors like Donald Westlake or Mary Higgins Clarke.  It took a while for some readers to figure out that Galbraith is a man who never lived.  The name was a pseudonym Rowling used as a cover for her latest literary endeavor.

The idea sounds kind of far-fetched and counter-intuitive.  What would an author who writes and about wizards and fantasy creatures want with a drug-store rack thriller?  If this is the natural response from her fans, then this also doesn't change the fact that it was her creative choice and she made it.  The surprising part is that she was able to succeed in her efforts.  I'd like to take some time to explain why I think The Cuckoo's Calling is worth a read, as well as being something of a nostalgia trip for certain types of readers.  You're welcome to join along, if you're willing to take a walk on the wild side.  The game's afoot!

Facts of the Case.

Sometime in the early hours of the morning, the body of a young girl was discovered lying in at the foot of her apartment flat.  The victim's name is listed as Lula Landry.  In life she was one of the most popular supermodels in the fashion industry, as well as the world of showbiz in general.

The official reports, along with those you'll no doubt read  or hear about in the news, call it a clear case of suicide.  There are no signs of struggle anywhere.  No one claims to have heard any violent commotion, and the girl seems to have been alone at the time of her death.

The Met are calling it an open and shut case.  For John Bristow, Lula's brother in law, however, there has to be more to it than that.  It's true that Lula was given the nickname of "Cuckoo", which is either endearing or a very poor attempt at a veiled insult depending on how you look at it.  Still, everything about the case keeps nagging at the back of John's mind.  In desperation, he turns to the help of of a man named Strike.  Cormoran Strike is his full name, he a private detective by trade.

Bristow would like Strike to try and clear Lula's death from the charge of suicide, if he can.  The newly minted Shamus is a bit skeptical to put it mildly.  From what he can see, the Metro bobbies have got it all sown up.  The lady in question was a bit too troubled for her own good, and there was no one around to help when she took a powder.  Still, Strike is in no position to complain or turn down the offer of some easy dough.  He threw himself out of the apartment of his ex-girlfriend and that's just the half of it.  As some other guy put it with such eloquence: "(the) only reason I took the job was because my bank account was trying to crawl under a duck!"  The pay might not wind up so good, but with any luck it'll help him avoid the benches of Kensington Gardens as his next room and board.  Besides, some random pencil pusher sent him a Girl Friday he can literally ill afford, so he's slumming for two mouths to feed at the moment.

Still, guys like Strike can never get a break.  You take on a case thinking you're going to babysit the shattered nerves of some Brother-Dearest and, the next thing you know, you've got a new stiff on your hands.  For whatever reason, somebody out there really hates the idea of Strike trying to look into the facts of Lula's death.  The worst part is the deeper he digs, the more it looks like he'll wind up in an early grave if he's not too careful.  Some guys have all the luck.

Adjusting Expectations.

In order to understand the difference between the world of Cuckoo's Calling and that of Hogwarts, it sort of helps to have a few examples that will demonstrate the nature of the genre Rowling used to work with, as well as the one she operates in now.  A good example would be to compare John Williams' Hedwig's Theme for that of another score he composed, The Long Goodbye.  It sounds hard to believe that the guy who made the fantasy scores for the childhood of an entire generation 80s kids could have that kind of sound in him.  It's still true, even if some insist that the truth is an impossibility.

Another example to help demonstrate the difference is to highlight the disparate types of genre effects she used to employ, and the one she works with now.  Here is where we can see the type of effect she used to write for as a fantasy author.  An here is a pretty visceral idea of the one she currently uses in the genre of the crime thriller.  The contrast is pretty jarring to say the least.  This is less like night and day and more like Jekyll and Hyde.  The difference is there are bound to be a lot of fans who will swear there favorite author can't have such a dark creative streak in her nature.  "Some things", these fans will say, "are just-not-done".  The irony is that it is possible to argue that the minute you state such a view, or one like it, you've already taken a first step into the more Gothic realm that Cuckoo's Calling is set in.  The hypothetical fan has established a kind of taboo boundary around their favorite writer, in which a certain idea is formed about her as a particular type of writer.  To suggest that it is possible for the artist herself to shatter this image is probably unthinkable to a good number of fans.  The problem with taboos like that is how easy they are to break.  The more artificial the taboo, the more fragile it is.  The world of Crime Thrillers are full of individuals who sometimes can't tell when the shadows start to grow around them.  Sometimes they can't even recognize those same shadows as their own.

To each their own idol: Fame and the Search for Reality.

In many ways, this inability to recognize the potential for the darker aspects of one's own nature, as well as those of the wider social culture at large is precisely what Rowling's book is all about.  This is an allegorical-thematic aspect highlighted by Prof. Beatrice Groves.  In one of two essays exploring the literary allusions of the book, Prof. Groves points out that "Cuckoo's Calling is a novel that circles around ideas of fame (obliquely commenting on its author's own fame and choice of anonymity (web)".  In her second essay, the book's thematic interest in fame is elaborated just a bit further when discussing the author's use of a line from an old Alfred Tennyson poem.

"The phrase...comes (to the main protagonist) as he experiences a new degree of fame.  the media feeding frenzy over the Lula Landry case is expressed short-hand by Strike reading a Private Eye feature about it (Private Eye - as well as being another name for a private detective - is a satirical British magazine acting, primarily, as a witty and jaundiced barometer of what is currently obsessing the media).  But just as Strike reads about his new-found fame in Private Eye, someone is, yet again, getting his actual name wrong: "Mr. Cameron Strick?" (Cuckoo's Calling 549).  The phrase "I am become a name" expresses not only fame but also a certain opaque, hollowed-out quality, at it's heart..."I am become a name" can be read as a rueful comment about fame.  The idea that people who think they know you might in fact  just know your name is humorously underlined in Strike's case since with him they often don't know even that (web)"

Prof. Groves observations serve as useful jumping off points for a brief examination of the main allegory of Ms. Rowling's novel.  If I had to summarize this main theme, I would suggest it is made up of three interlocked components.  Taken together, these are (1) the search for fame.  This is a search undertaken by Lula Landry and her friends in the narrative.  Most of them have found some modicum of fame and success.  However, as the curtain opens, we are shown how things have shaped out for Lula and Co.  The results are just a tad bit unflattering.  They are like contestants caught up in a game none of them can win.  They are caught out and most of them know it on some level.

Because of this we have the second element in the allegory, (2) the desire to escape back into reality.  This is an attempt made by Ciara Porter, a model as well as being a good friend to Lula when she was alive.  Ciara is also surprisingly well read, and has a place waiting for her at Cambridge University.  Because she is good at the modeling business, everyone assumes she is either the requisite dumb blond, or worse.  She is still the one player who is able to make good her escape from the celebrity rat race.  The reason why this could be leads to the final ingredient in the novel's thematic brew.

Becoming a name can also be considered a short hand for the ability to either establish an identity, or else just be yourself.  It is this question of identity that is at the heart of a lot of the struggles of all the names on Strike's suspect list.  This also applies more to the figure of Lula more than any other character.  As Rowling unwinds her story, Lula begins to come forward as a more three-dimensional personality.  The person we meet is a somewhat misused girl who never really knew herself, stemming from a lack of a family to call her own.  Because of this, she goes to a great length to find out just where she belongs.  This is an admirable goal in itself.  The trouble starts when Lula gets caught up in the fame game, where everybody is there to use and abuse each other.  Throughout the narrative, as Strike makes his way from one suspect to another, Lula is talked about and discussed in terms that somehow make her less than human through the very attempts to humanize her.

As for the fame game itself, it involves the modern tendency to make famous people and their reputations into a kind of idol.  The problem with idols, or totems if you prefer a modern term, is that they tend to place barriers between people.  They also tend to isolate individuals from the real world.  Granted, that can sometimes be the whole point of why some idols are made in the first place.  However, with the celebrities in Strike's investigation, it seems less deliberate and more like a trap everyone built for themselves without even realizing it.  Strike ultimately reveals the London celebrity scene as a classic noir space.  It is, as Richard Widmark once said, a world full of stories where people "lived on the edge, told stories about life on the streets; shady characters; crooked cops; twisted love; and bad luck (web)".   

I agree with an anonymous critic who points out that the world of celebrity is a society that Strike is right to turn his back on, though I think the reasons why are a bit more complex.  As a private detective, Strike is someone who must always dedicate his working hours to looking for the truth.  That means he must always try to uncover just the facts of any given case.  This places the detective in a search for reality just like his celebrity counterparts.  The difference is that Strike is more or less "woke" as he goes about his job.  While it's hard to say if the friends of the late Ms. Landry will ever be lucky enough to re-discover reality, Cormoran Strike will always be presented with the opportunity every time he takes on a case.

Conclusion: Establishing a New Mythos.

In addition to the murder investigation at the heart of the book, Rowling has also taken the time to establish a major story for her new character.  The tale of Cormoran Strike seems to revolve around the death of his mother, Leda.  Strike's mom was one of those girls who fit Eric Clapton's description to the letter.  She had "a rock and roll heart".  That also seems to have been about all she had.  From what the reader can understand, she loved her son, but she had an irresponsible streak that was always getting her into trouble.  Sometimes this meant having to farm Strike and his sister Lucy out to their uncle and aunt while she went through one rehab after another.

To top it all off, she fell in love with Jonny Rokeby.  He's a rock star who might be Strike's illegitimate father.  It's hard to say whether that's the truth or not, since they've rarely spoken with one another and Strike seems eager to keep his distance, despite a token reaching out gesture on at least two occasions.  The core of the series appears to revolve around the question of Leda Strike's death.  The official coroner's was an overdose, just another victim of the Rock and Roll lifestyle.  Strike seems convinced it could have been murder.  As to the question of whodunit, that is something we will have to wait for.

A second over-arching element concerns Robin Ellacott.  Rowling wastes very little time in setting up this character as both a sidekick and foil to the main protagonist.  In choosing this creative route, I think the author raises a number of, not issues, just questions regarding the kind of artistic pitfalls that tend to come as part of the package with this type of character.  The phrase Gal Friday was mentioned in the plot synopsis above.  That phrase was used in jest for my purposes, yet it can also have some negative attributes.  The big risk with a character like Robin is that the author is always open to the danger of writing her to be either just the Watson to Strike's Holmes, with a gender-swap thrown in, or else as just some one-dimensional version of "The Girl" for the main character to bounce off of.

I think it's to Rowling's credit that she makes Robin a character in her own right.  She gives her a life outside of busting crime that is layered with conflicts both public and private.  Her biggest hassle in this novel is what happens when she is able to land her dream job, and the guy in charge makes her husband jealous.  It is plot elements like these that are a kind of trap for the author inasmuch as the love triangle being traced in outline may sound familiar enough so that the audience knows what's coming.  The good news is that Rowling is nothing if not excellent at character writing, and she manages to put skin and bones on an old trope in a way that is more or less satisfying.

While Rowling promises more to come from this basic setup, by and large her main concern in this first book is the solution to the Landry case, and that's where she focuses the reader's attention.  It all amounts to an interesting change of pace that, for me at least, contained an element of pleasant surprise.  This a book geared toward a specific type of reader.  This sort of person can be a fan of Harry and his adventures.  At the same time, what I think will go on to define the most avid Strike fan is a shared taste for the Gothic and the macabre.  If you had a roomful of Potter fans, the fan of the C.B. Strike Mysteries would probably stick out like a sore thumb.  This kind of guy isn't the sort you'd find wearing a fan costume.  Instead, he's best pictured as a fellow in tattered blue-jeans, black motorcycle jacket, and an image of Joey Ramone emblazoned on his t-shirt.  That should give you a rough idea of the territory we're dealing with in this new series.  Just remember to think less Wizarding World and more The Thin Man, or Murder, My Sweet, and you should be fine (if you can work up the stomach for it, that is).

It is possible that embracing Ms. Rowling's new direction will be a transition that many fans are unable to make.  I don't know if this brief review is enough to either change reluctant minds, or else encourage those who are curious to pick up a copy.  However, I can say The Cuckoo's Calling is definitely a tome worth hunting down.  For me, as a kid who learned to read thanks to guys like Edgar Poe and Conan Doyle, it was sort of like visiting some old, favorite childhood stomping grounds and discovering that a famous writer also liked to hang out their as well.  I'd say the office of C.B. Strike, private eye, are well worth a visit.

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