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Sunday, 5 January 2014

The Empty Shelf Challenge #1 - The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

Some time before Christmas I saw a great thing floating around on Facebook called “The Empty Shelf Challenge” from a blogger called Jon Acuff. The idea is that you empty one of your bookshelves and fill it with everything you read in 2014.

Great idea, right?

The first book I officially read this year from the beginning (I had started 'Eragon' just before New Year and finished just after, so I'm not sure it counts) was 'The Cuckoo's Calling' by Robert Galbraith.

Now, I should probably have never come into contact with this book, never being a great crime fiction reader. (Actually this is the first crime fiction I have ever read). It emerged a while ago that Robert Galbraith, so-say a debut author, is actually Ms. J. K. Rowling. She enjoyed great anonymity for a while. People read this book, not because it was her, but because a) they were recommended it, b) they just happened to stumble upon it, c) they are fans of crime fiction and this was a recent crime fiction release d) ANYTHING ELSE unrelated to the fact that the author was actually incredibly successful and famous already.

However, things are as they are, and yes, pretty much the whole reason I trawled through library shelves every few days to find this book was because it is by J. K. Rowling. So sue me. I love her work.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this story. I'm not usually very good at saying why I love particular books, so I'm going to have a crack at it now.

1) The characters. 

Cormoran Strike is ex-military police. He is a decent, hard-working guy who is down on his luck when the story begins and is saved financially by John Bristow, who asks him to reinvestigate the death of his adoptive sister, Lula Landry. (Police deemed it suicide but John doesn't believe it. Cormoran thinks Bristow is off his nut but accepts the case anyway because he needs the money and takes pity.) Strike is immensely clever, discerning, and tough, but we see a more painful and vulnerable side to him when on the subject of his ex-girlfriend. I also really like the way he interacts with Robin (more on her in a minute). Though he's anxious at first as her employment sends him further into debt, he comes to truly value her and wonder how he would have ever done this case without someone as quietly brilliant and proactive like she is. He's also a true professional – he recognises that she's a 'sexy woman' but also notices the engagement ring on her finger and respects that boundary, and then some. 

Robin Ellacott. I find it extremely refreshing that there is a well-written, well-rounded female character who is not there to serve the main male character as a romantic interest. Thank you Galbraith/Rowling for that! Robin is smart, professional, takes the initiative and goes above and beyond in her work for Strike, particularly during one funny and touching part in the book when Strike is drunk and Robin looks after him.

There are, of course, a lot of other major and minor players in the book: John Bristow, and his family, Evan Duffield, Ciara Porter, Guy Some, the Bestuguis, and more. Some of them we never actually meet, such as Lula Landry. Even though she's dead before the book begins she still seems as well-written and fleshed out as the other characters, no matter how big or small their role is.

I guess when you've spent fifteen years creating the Harry Potter universe and its countless characters, none of whom are presented as superfluous, you get pretty well practised at that kind of thing. It's a lesson I'm learning for my own writing, for sure!

2) The plot.

Like I said, this was my first crime fiction read so I really didn't know what to expect, but the story absorbed me all the way through. I will admit, at times it felt quite frustrating during the parts where Galbraith was questioning people – I just wanted to know what they knew! - but it was clear that Galbraith/Rowling had done their research, and I guess this is what it might feel like to private detectives/police. They have to wring every bit of information out of those they are questioning in order to make things as clear as possible so they can build up an effective story.

I definitely felt the tension rising through the book. As the questioning got deeper, as he got closer to the people who were at the centre of the family, as he just began to see more, I felt quite worried for Strike. Not as much as I could have done, as I thought: “He's ex-military. He can look after himself”. And I have to admit, even when all was laid bare at the end, it still blew my mind. I would never have guessed the “Whodunnit” part. And I'm glad I didn't. It made it even more enjoyable and satisfying finding out the truth.

3) The use of language.

I love the way Rowling writes as, for me, she can make any subject seem absorbing. Take “The Casual Vacancy” for example. She can take two ostensibly simple and ordinary sides of town – one oppressively middle-class and one very sadly poor and run-down – and create huge drama between them, resulting in a 576 page tome that did not bore me from beginning to end.

Anyway, preamble over. I'm not really sure how to write about language specifically (A-Level English Literature seems a lifetime ago) so I'll just give a few examples to try and convey what I want to say.

A) She sets the scene well. I know it sounds cliché, but the prologue drew me in to a place where I felt like I was one of the observers trying to catch a glimpse of the fallen body, drawing my coat tightly around myself to keep warm and yawning because I did not want to be up and out but at the same time, in a weird, twisted way, I did not want to miss this.

B) Her similes and analogies:

“The cameras looked like malevolent shoeboxes atop their pole, each with a single blank, black eye.”

Seriously, has anyone ever described cameras like malevolent shoeboxes before? Brilliant.

“...reflecting that Lucy's idea of sympathy compared unfavourably with some of the interrogation techniques they had used at Guantanamo.” I actually laughed for quite a while at this bit. The analogy is extreme, but it does its job of showing Lucy's character.

C) What could be tedious, isn't. Strike has to question a lot of people, and his line of questioning begins similarly with each person until they get to a fork in the road where some turn left and some turn right. At times I felt I wanted to shout “Get to the point! What does this mean, Strike?” It felt like Galbraith was almost teasing. You knew the Strike knew what was going on, or at least had some idea, whereas I had no flipping clue. I enjoyed that. Some endings are just too easy to guess.

Anyway, I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone. Not because it's secretly by J. K. Rowling but because I found it a genuinely enjoyable and thrilling read.  

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