They say the cream rises to the top; they forget to add that what works for the dairy farm doesn’t necessarily work for the publishing industry. When it comes to books, the crap and the cream share similar fates, blobbing around in milky oblivion, until a little luck and lot of HYPE comes along and sort of FORCES either crap or cream to the top.
Case in point: the trajectory of “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” which sold very few copies when it was written by a nobody name of Robert Galbraith, and then became a critically-acclaimed mega-seller when it turned out that Robert Galbraith was actually a pen name for J. K. Rowling, Mother Potter herself. The story of how that “discovery” came about is fascinating, (especially if you’re fascinated by bullshit stories concocted by PR teams.)
More than a few people loudly asked in puzzlement: “How could a good book by an acknowledged master-plotter go unnoticed?” Here’s a decent explanation, but I have an even simpler one: because it happens all the fucking time! There’s land-fills of worthy novels you’ve never heard of and never WILL hear of.
There is no real correlation between popularity and quality. Some popular things are very good, some popular things are mediocre, some popular things are blights on our civilization. A few unpopular things are just too damned good for this world. Most unpopular things richly deserve their obscurity.
Put the words J. K. Rowling in your cover, expect the book to sell significantly better. Not only that- and more interestingly from a psychological point of view – people will actually REACT differently to it. Apparently Shakespeare was wrong: a rose by any other name is in serious risk of not smelling nearly as well, or at least of not selling nearly as many bouquets.
If Harry Potter had been called Eustace Grumblyprick instead, we might not be having this conversation.
So what about the novel itself? As it opens, vulture paparazzi gather around the corpse of nebulously talented super-celebrity Lula Landry. Lula has been found dead after what seems like a row with a sleazy rock-band boyfriend, (obviously, they were re-enacting the video for Britney Spears’ “Everytime.”)
What follows is a well-crafted but padded whodunit. It stars hulking, one-legged gumshoe Cormoran Strike and Robin, his competent assistant/ audience stand-in. Mostly Cormoran goes around, having repetitive, information-recycling conversations with slightly modernized versions of the Agatha Christie stock company. (I do miss the days when the guys were all Reggie, the Colonels were all Mustard, and the maids were all either Nancy, Gladys or Mabel.) The crime is not all that interesting, the solution makes sense but it doesn’t surprise, and the “parlor scene” is a real stumble, the only true suggestion that this is a first try at a classic mystery.
Classic parlor scenes work because the detective has some theatrical inclinations, and directs his comments to an audience. There are usually decoy characters with secrets to keep so that everyone feels the heat evenly and the criminal is pressured into not running out the door, either because they must keep social appearances or because there’s authority present. THIS parlor scene makes no sense, because basically Cormoran invites the culprit to a one-on-one, long-winded talk-a-thon that doesn’t fit Cormoran’s morose character. The killer sits quietly and patiently through it all, but I expected them to snap: “Look, dude, I know what I did, how I did it, and why I did it; why are you explaining all these things for MY benefit? Quit showboating.”
“The Cuckoo’s Calling” is comparable to dozens- if not hundreds- of thrillers released this year. But it’s far from a painful read, and I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Cormoran and his girl Friday. Likely the inevitable sequel will be an improvement. Unless I’m wrong, poor J. K. is doomed to yet another long-running genre series, (the very thing she was avoiding.) It’s gonna be awesome!
RATING: GOOD ENOUGH for most, COOL! if your love for J. K. Rowling blinds you to its flaws.
I just mentioned Arthur Rackham. Maybe Rowling was thinking of Rackham and his illustration for the Giant Cormoran when she came up with her gigantic P.I.!