Spot the Mistake #2

The Cuckoo’s Calling is about the death of a model, Lula Landry. A good part of the subplot concerns her life in the public eye, which the photo manages to convey brilliantly: the cameras surrounding her, above her head; the set of her shoulders; the vulnerability in depicting her in nightwear.

A slightly smaller part of the subplot concerns her attempt to find her own identity: as a young woman growing up, working in an isolated profession; as an adopted child; as someone of mixed race heritage trying to get in touch with black culture, struggling against the family who had tried to wash her identity white.

The Cuckoos Calling

Yes…about that last one…

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What We Learn About Robin: A Defence

Spoilers! Please do not read on if you haven’t read Career of Evil. 

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Throughout the three Cormoran Strike books, we’ve been learning steadily more about Robin Ellacott, his golden-haired secretary. In A Cuckoo’s Calling, she is a fairly bland character. A nice girl, with a nice house, nice family, and a boring fiancée. Working as a temp, she wanders into Strike’s office and stays.

In The Silkworm, Robin grows as a character a little bit more. We see layers that we didn’t know were there, and that she had forgotten about completely. She turns out to be a naturally good investigator, an adept driver, amateur psychologist…slowly, Strike comes to give more of his work over to Robin, until she steadily becomes his partner. We find out that Robin was studying at university, with dreams of working for the police, before mysteriously dropping out. The tensions between her and her accountant fiancée, Matthew, become greater as Robin grows away from him and spends more and more time at the office. 

Matthew’s theory is that Robin is in love with Strike. The hours spent at work, the new light in her eyes…We, the reader, don’t see an affair. We see that Robin is simply in love with her job. And, by Career of Evil, she is taking on cases as well as, if not better than, her boss.

Ah, yes. Career of Evil.

Midway through the book, there is a ‘revelation’: a ‘revelation’ that seeks to explain Robin’s claustrophobic relationship with Matthew, why she left university, why such an intelligent, driven woman is working as a temp…

We find out that she was raped as a teenager.

This leaves an extremely unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Almost certainly Rowling’s intention. Career of Evil is intentionally a darker book than its predecessors. We go beyond cartoonish violence into seeing the impact of crime on real life: fair enough that it should involve our main characters.

But with that said, sexual violence has become a cliche in detective fiction: a cheap, easy, gratuitous way to make a story dark or adult.  As we are repeatedly told by Strike’s internal narration, it makes Robin into someone whose life has been defined by those twenty minutes.

What Rowling is doing is admirable, but some of the implications are a bit unsavoury.

But, leaving all of this aside, there is an alternative explanation.

We are far from the sunlit, uncomplicated days of Poirot and Marple. To be a detective nowadays, you need some kind of backstory, some kind of motivating trauma. It’s probably quicker to name those who don’t have this, but to give a flavour:

Adam Dagliesh, Tony Hill, Thomas Lynley, Quirke, John RebusLisbeth Salander, Scott and Bailey, Vera Stanhope, Kurt Wallander….Strike himself has his father, his mother, his leg and Charlotte.

When we met Robin originally, she was an archetype: the nice girl with the nice job and boring fiancée, who discovers another, more exciting life and runs headlong into it. The nearest parallel in popular culture is probably a Dr Who companion: it’s a typical ‘gate to another world’ story, except that the world Robin discovers exists (sort of) in real life. The cliche of past trauma actually gives Robin more independence, because it takes her away from the archetype and back to one character, with one story, making one specific set of decisions.

Which mirrors, quite nicely, Robin’s transition from secretary to detective. In the first book, we know nothing about her character; she mainly makes the tea. In the second, as she goes out investigating we learn more about her life with Matthew. It is in the third, when she finally gets a full backstory, that we see her following up her own leads and detecting in her own right.

The increasing emphasis on Robin’s character, her family woes and her multi-layered backstory come as Robin grows from secretary to detective. The fashion is for our investigators to come with a traumatic past and family trouble. Robin-as-secretary had none of these things, Robin-as-detective does.

It’s a subtle point: perhaps a kinder interpretation than that Rowling is dwelling on something that perhaps should have been mentioned and then let alone. But ours not to judge.

 

 

REVIEW: Career of Evil

Career of Evil

Career of Evil

Robert Galbraith

Sphere, 2015

Things are going well for Cormoran Strike, private investigator. And then someone posts a severed leg to his office. Robin, his beguiling and innocent secretary, asks hypothetically how many people could possibly want to do such a thing. We’re off to a flying start when Strike simply replies “four”.

Career of Evil takes a very different tone to the previous novels. There was nothing dark about The Cuckoo’s Calling – the deaths were clean in Christie-fashion. In The Silkworm, the gore took on a gothic, macabre quality and we never quite believed in it.

In Career of Evil, we have…domestic violence, multiple instances of child abuse, multiple instances of rape, dismemberment and a sequence where a prostitute gets stabbed in the stomach before her fingers are cut off. It’s less a detective story and more a police procedural, as we travel round with Strike and Robin as they investigate the four suspects: thug Terenence Malley, Strike’s abusive ex-stepfather Whittaker, domestic abuser and psycopath Donald Laing, and domestic abuser and pedophile Noel Brockbank. It’s a merry crowd.

To give light relief, we briefly meet two people with BIID, or Body Integrity Indentity Disorder – the desire to amputate a specific (healthy) body part.* Their meeting takes place in an art gallery cafe. It’s an intentionally humorous scene that gives us observations like this:

Robin suddenly found that she could not look at Strike and pretended to be contemplating a curious painting of a hand holding a shoe. At least, she thought it was a hand holding a shoe. It might equally have been a brown plant pot with a pink cactus growing out of it.

It’s a repeated, and rather boring, criticism of Rowling that her success is thanks to plot not writing. Reading the Cormoran Strike books tells a different story: that maybe the Harry Potter books are written simplistically because this fits their fairytale quality, not because this is Rowling’s only style. In Career of Evil, we don’t so much read about but feel the small Scottish town of Melrose or a military base on Cyprus.

And for all the gore, Rowling is a master of understatement. Early on in the book, we meet the parents of a suspect’s former wife: a woman he terrorised, abused, and made infertile by ‘sticking a knife up her’. All the pent-up pain that this lack causes, the children and grandchildren stolen away, is made viscerally real by her mother’s way of making the best of things:

“But she and Ben have lovely holidays,’ she whispered frantically, dabbing repeatedly at her hollow cheeks, lifting her glasses to reach her eyes. “And they breed – they breed German – German shepherds”.

As the books progress, so Rowling peels back her characters layer by layer. Strike’s ex-fiancee Charlotte is barely mentioned: he has moved on, and so have we. We do see more of his mother Leda, and what was originally a few lines about the ‘supergroupie’ becomes a picture of a complex character: a woman who will take an abusive psycopath into her squalid home without a thought for her children, but also a woman for whom it would have been impossible “to walk past a boy of her son’s age while he lay bleeding in the gutter…the fact that the boy was clutching a bloody knife…made no difference at all”. Here we meet Shanker, Strike’s nefarious contact with the underworld and Leda’s adopted son.

We see a lot more of Strike’s military past too. It’s impossible to stress how deeply refreshing Rowling’s take on the Army is. It’s an organisation that contains heroes like Strike and psycopaths like Laing and Brockbank, and no comment is made on this. For *once* an author shows us both sides instead of total glorification or condemnation.
What we learn about Robin is fairly divisive. It adds a small amount of depth to the character, but takes away quite a lot of her status as Everywoman; this may have been Rowling’s intention. And it may be no coincidence that the increasing emphasis on Robin’s character, her family woes and her multi-layered backstory comes as Robin grows from secretary to detective. The fashion is for our investigators to come with a traumatic past and family trouble. Robin-as-secretary had none of these things, Robin-as-detective does. It’s a very subtle point, and a kinder interpretation than that Rowling is dwelling on something that perhaps should have been mentioned and then let alone – but ours not to judge.

There are some bad points. It’s not clear why Strike was certain it was someone he knew who had sent him the leg – surely he’s made a lot of unknown enemies in his time. The segments throughout the book written from the killer’s perspective are a bit overdone and detract from the tension rather than add to it. The scene-setting that worked so well in The Cuckoos Calling seems to flag a bit here – all the geographic elements are there, but the culture of London takes a bit of a back seat apart from a couple of mentions about house prices.

But these are very, very minor quibbles. Against this, we see moments like when Rowling’s evocation, humour and dramatic tension all come together in one glorious sentence as Shanker shields an abused girl with one hand and raises his knife with the other. We read about his “gold tooth glinting in the sun falling slowly beind the houses opposite”.

Worth twenty quid to read that alone.

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*BIID.org.uk contains the following sentence in the introductory section on their website: “Therefore, to become a better person, they feel that a certain limb or appendage will have to be amputated. Unfortunately, there are no known surgeons that will carry out this type of amputation without a medical reason to perform the operation[!]” It’s almost impossible to judge whether this is a real disorder and a very subtle parody.

When you come across the quote from an “eminent neuroscientist” named Dick Swaab, you may assume the latter. Uncertainty returns on the discovery that he’s a real person.

REVIEW: The Silkworm

The Silkworm

The Silkworm

Robert Galbraith

Sphere, 2014

For veteran and detective Cormoran Strike, things are looking up. After his debut in ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’, penniless and sleeping in his office, we meet him as he turns away clients, sleeping above his office. Strike roams around London, flirting with his secretary and drinking London Pride and Doombar, and all is good in the world.

Soon, however, Strike gets a call from a Leonara Quine, the long-suffering wife of author Owen Quine. Quine is a one-hit-wonder who has been sinking into obscurity for years. His latest manuscript is a vitrolic attack on anyone who has ever rejected him*, and is widely considered unpublishable. It tells the story of Bombyx, a thinly-veiled representation of Quine himself, who goes on a journey where nobody appreciates his talents and nobody understands him. Bombyx’s namesake is Bombyx Mori, the Latin name for the silkworm: a creature that has its insides boiled out to make something beautiful.

Bombyx Mori

Pictured: literary brilliance

To nobody’s surprise but Leonora’s, Quine ends up dead. Who dunnit?

The detective plot is solid but, as in The Cuckoo’s Calling and Harry Potter, the great joy is the world Rowling creates. This time we are taken us into the land of the literati, of champagne dinners and monstrous egos. You never get far from a moral element in Rowling’s work, and the satire that ran through The Cuckoo’s Calling like a stick of rock is here still. Within the first ten pages, we meet a corrupt peer, a nasty CEO, an entitled rich journalists and a stream of “wives who found post-crash city husbands a lot less appealing”. In Harry Potter the moral element was universal, children’s fiction-like: the good verses the evil. In Rowling’s other work we tip into class commentary, which doesn’t always come across as well: the page long rant about the Conservative legal aid reforms will doubtless be fascinating for American readers.

But when it is related to character and plot, Rowling is brilliant. There is a glorious satire on amateur authors with the introduction of Quine’s mistress, ‘erotic fantasist’ Kathryn Kent: but she is also a victim, a sympathetic character, and relevant to the plot. We also see a lot more of Charlotte, Strike’s erstwhile fiancee. In The Cuckoo’s Calling she was a spectre fleeing down a staircase: here, her character flickers into view as Rowling attacks the social mores of the upper classes. The portrayal of mental illness is raw and real, but it never gets too heavy-handed. The revelation about Charlotte’s attempted suicide comes as Strike reads the fake Tatler article detailing her marriage to the caddish Jago Ross. It’s both upsetting and absolutely hilarious.

Strike himself remains no angel. Throughout the book, we see him through other people’s eyes as well as his own, most particularly his secretary and sidekick Robin, and we see a man we admire but also who makes mistakes. We also get to see a bit more of Robin herself, who gets steadily more and more appealing as the book goes on. Little details build up steadily: we learn that ‘Cormoran’ comes from the name of a Cornish giant, we meet Robin’s small-town family. In typical Rowling style, we have great fun with the significance of character names: a stuck up writer named ‘Fancourt’ and ‘Quine’ itself which, according to Google, is a computer programme that prints nothing but its own programming. Quine is defended by his proud and courageous wife Leonora.

There is a much longer review in quite how good The Silkworm is, but what it hopefully boils down to how Rowling’s world and writing are rich and endlessly interesting. Coupled with a solid plot and some really good revelations in quick succession, this is a must-read. Strike is going up in the world and Rowling climbs with him, going from strength to strength.

J K Rowling

Magic!

*i.e. everyone

Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

rowling

The Cuckoo’s Calling

Robert Galbraith

Sphere, 2013

Bloody hell, this is good.

To some, this may come as a surprise. You can argue that, based on the Harry Potter series, that J.K.’s strengths are world-building and plot, even say that this is proved by The Casual Vacancy which, a vaguely political Aga-Saga, literally lacked the magic. So much is tied to J.K.’s name that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to judge her writing on merit alone. And we expect more of the great J.K., with eight full-length novels under her belt, than we do from a first novel from an anonymous author; there is also a lot more mileage in putting the boot into the most printed author on the planet than a never-previously published former soldier. This is more than a reaction than a review as it’s not, as a consequence, really possible to judge The Cuckoo’s Calling alone after finding out Galbraith’s real identity. But what’s certain is that this is a good novel, and a decent detective story.

‘Well that’s what I thought,’ said Strike. ‘But I’m no expert on women and their clothes.’

The links to Rowling’s real identity are subtle, and quite hard to spot: the occasional not-quite-jibes at Gordon Brown become slightly more amusing in this light, while the names have the same fairy-tale eloquence that we saw in Harry Potter. This time, the joy is that it needs explaining how the characters came by them. Watch for the explanations as they appear.

[It is worth taking some time to try and find these before you read on, but…] As well as the use of stereotypical names, such as a plain secretary called Alison and a working-class girl called Rochelle, the novel features: Cormoran Strike, named after two predatory birds, the latter of which with the obvious double-meaning, who is assisted by a secretary named Robin (and she gets a joke associated with her name in the first few pages). Lula’s useless boyfriend gets the name Duffield, while we get the best placeholder name imaginable with the designer Guy Somé (flip the words around). An extremely unpleasant film producer is given the name Bestigui (Beastie-guy). Pushing the boat out a bit, the aristocratic guardian of Lula’s secrets is called Ciara (Tiara) Porter. Lula Landry herself takes the nickname ‘Cuckoo’, which gives the novel a name and the eventual solution a metaphor.

And it may well be J.K’s best piece of character yet. You could see quite a few of Rowling’s opinions of humanity in The Casual Vacancy, but it was a political novel so the audience were bored. In The Cuckoo’s Calling, her observations are secondary to the detective story, and consequently become a pleasure. The portrayal of the world of ‘models, rappers, fashion designers, druggies and illicit liasons’  is actually fairly complimentary; it’s in the portrayal of the hereditary rich that Galbraith really begins to snarl. It’s a joy to watch.
The same is true of the descriptions. Seeing the bulky ex-military Strike walking among the thin and industrious assistants of a fashion designer, we get the line,

‘Strike felt abnormally huge and hairy; a woolly mammoth attempting to blend in amongst capuchin monkeys.’

Beautiful.

‘Thread eyebrows. It’s like plucking, but with threads.’
Strike could not imagine how this worked. (Woman writing! Woman writing!)

While ‘we can tell a woman wrote it because of the descriptions of clothes’ is overstating the case, it is true that clothes are better described than Strike’s military past, which never quite rings true or seems real. Strike himself is the stereotypical tough damaged hero with money troubles, woman troubles, a streak of cynicism as long as the Thames and a heart as big as the Ritz, but he’s a cipher compared to the cast who surround him. Equally, something about Charlotte, Strike’s ex-fiancée, doesn’t quite seem right, but then she is, by design, a spectre. But it’s in the nature of detective novels that the detective isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the most interesting, as they’re the reader’s way of observing the interplay of character that culminates in murder.

Harry Potter had a bland lead because he was a normal way in to a very strange world populated by very strange characters, learning as the reader did. The Cuckoo’s Calling features the world of high fashion and higher money, not quite as odd as that of witches and wizards, but still the detective needs to be a more ordinary outsider. Strike’s past is implausible and he’s not very interesting, but he’s an inappropriate way to judge Galbraith’s skill with character. Strike’s new secretary Robin acts as the audience identification everywoman, but Galbraith makes her a very charming one and a character in her own right. If we call the city a character, then London here is not quite as well-drawn as it is in some other novels (read Rivers of London for how to do the city justice). It’s a novel set in London, not a London novel, but the sparkling bright mindset of the dying days of New Labour is brilliantly evoked.

But the rest of the cast more than make up for these quibbles: it may even be possible to ascertain Galbraith’s gender by the descriptions of women alone. Perhaps the best example of this is the depiction of selfish, generous, loving, desperate for love, loyal, untrustworthy Lula Landry, and it’s a testament to Galbraith’s skill with character that we know and understand all this is in spite of the fact that we never meet her alive. The novel could have done with more twists roundabout the middle, where we spend a long time running round London simply so (we suspect) Galbraith can spend more time with his characters. Like ever-so-many, the beginning is more interesting than the end, and the eventual explanation is a twist that we’ve seen before. Coupled with one major logical flaw that is acknowledged but not explained. But the motive, so so rarely for modern crime novels, is both logical and beautifully poetic at the same time.

Seen in light of J.K.’s other work, it’s good. It doesn’t have the imagination of Harry Potter, the political drive of The Casual Vacancy, and lacks the breadth of both. But it’s a solid detective novel, a good piece of writing and, overall, a delightful character piece. Read and enjoy.