The Cuckoo’s Calling, part one

29 Apr

Onwards we go, gentle readers.

Part One opens from the point of view of a secondary character, Our Hero’s Plucky Sidekick, a woman named Robin. (This is a bad example of a Meaningful Name; a sidekick named Robin is just poor, and it’s also something of a title drop with the inexplicable bird theme we seem to have going on.) I award Rowling one brownie point for starting with a female character and a character who isn’t the protagonist. I then immediately remove this brownie point because she is literally thinking only about her fiancé Matthew. Robin works for a temp agency and is on her way to meet a new client, it’s effectively a job interview, and yet she is genuinely only thinking about how sparkly her engagement ring is. This isn’t an exaggeration, either, sadly. (Spoiler: this book doesn’t even come close to passing the Bechdel test.) Also more comma abuse, which I don’t recall from other Rowling books; maybe she forgot how they work. I’m choosing to see this as evidence that the publishers knew exactly who “Robert Galbraith” was, because a new unknown author would get at least a vague attempt at proofreading.

Robin is tall, blonde and pretty. This is all the description we will ever get. The only female characters in this book to get full descriptions are the unattractive ones, whom the narrative invariably requires us to hate (anyone who’s read Harry Potter will have noted that the Good Guys can’t be ugly in any way and the Bad Guys always are, with the single exception of the Malfoys; Rowling has improved as far as male characters are concerned, but among the female cast, ugly=bad and pretty=good still). Non-evil female characters are just ‘pretty’ or ‘very pretty’, with hair colour or clothing sometimes thrown in if you’re lucky. This does not change whether the scene is from a male or female point of view.

The new client is our protagonist, Cormoran Strike. I have no idea why he needed a name like that instead of Joe Smith or something more normal. I was wondering if it’s supposed to tie in to the bird theme, as a sort-of homophone of ‘Cormorant Shrike’; the name Cormoran is from Cornish mythology, the giant who created the castle on St Michael’s Mount, though the name isn’t of Cornish origin and nobody’s quite sure where it’s from. None of this is relevant to the character in any way, Meaningful or otherwise; Rowling just wanted a complicated name for some reason, as far as I can tell.

Interestingly, Strike is ugly. Not just not handsome, but downright ugly as far as usual standards go. He’s described as a big, slightly overweight guy with almost brutish features and a lot of body hair, and his hair will be repeatedly compared to pubic hair until you start to feel nauseated. This makes him the first non-pretty Good Guy of either gender in anything Rowling has written, which is overall a positive thing but I feel she might be making too big a deal of it. He also has a black eye and some bloody scratches on his face, which Robin will notice several times without ever wondering about the cause, let alone asking him about it.

We switch to Strike’s point of view. He has been sleeping in his office, having left his fiancée recently and being in debt to the point where he apparently can’t find anywhere else to live. He is as fixated on his love life as Robin is on hers; this is very annoying and doesn’t bode well for the rest of the book, but the plot hasn’t started yet for either of them, so I can let it slide on this occasion. His first meeting with Robin is bizarrely sort-of hilarious and very weird – he’s leaving his office in a hurry, slams into her, almost knocks her down the stairs, and saves her by grabbing her breast and yanking her back onto the landing.

We apologise for the interruption to this post.
There was going to be an image expressing the
appropriate level of OW this must have caused.
But Loten made the mistake of doing an image
search for “ouch” without filters and now needs
to go and vomit. Do not try this at home. Ever.

I have no idea what this says about either the author or the characters. Personally, when someone near me has slipped or tripped and nearly fallen over, I tend to automatically grab for their arms, or maybe their jacket or bag, rather than far less useful and far more painful areas of anatomy. Maybe that’s just me. But just try to imagine a genderflipped version; imagine a guy starting to fall down the stairs and being saved by someone grabbing his dick and pulling him back? (That would probably hurt more, admittedly, but it’s the same context.) Robin seems peculiarly unaffected, actually. It seems to hurt a bit (um, DUH), and she is very briefly sort-of indignant, but it’s forgotten extremely quickly – possibly because this is still from Strike’s point of view, as will be 90% of the book from this point on.

Because of his debts, Strike had intended to cancel his contract with the agency so they would stop sending him temp workers he can’t afford any more. Because he’s apparently incompetent, he didn’t do so. Nor does he tell Robin this. I’d like to say that’s out of concern for her feelings, rather than because she’s pretty, and we’re not actually given a reason in the narrative, but I suspect I would be lying.

Strike and Robin meet a client, John Bristow. John’s brother was in Strike’s class at school, before being killed in a cycling accident near an old quarry. Here we have an evil-teacher flashback, because I don’t know, Rowling’s never seemed fond of teachers. I don’t believe for a second that when a teacher has to explain to a class of ten year olds that their friend has died horribly, the teacher will gloat about how the boy had been forbidden to go there and was showing off so clearly deserved to die. Anyway, this is totally irrelevant but does explain why John has come to Strike in particular… apparently he was keeping track of all his brother’s old friends for decades and thus knows that Strike became a private investigator two years ago? I don’t know.

The dead supermodel was John’s adopted sister. Her name is Lula Landry (Rowling loves alliterative names. Wait until we get to Harry Potter. There are dozens of them) and for reasons that will remain unclear for most of the book, he’s sure she was murdered instead of committing suicide. The police don’t believe him since there is absolutely zero evidence and he can’t provide any, so he’s come to beg Strike to investigate. Strike has read about the incident in the paper and he thinks it was suicide, but he needs the money, so he agrees. Robin is just standing in a corner as far as I can tell. John’s girlfriend Alison comes in to nag him that he needs to get back to the office, because the stereotypical bitchy nagging girlfriend trope is clearly a much better writing choice than John himself deciding that he should go back to work, and they leave.

Robin pokes around the office for a bit. It’s a cluttered disorganised mess but there’s somehow no evidence that Strike is currently living there. In a drawer she finds a stack of death threats that an unhappy former client has been repeatedly sending; she’s horrified but Strike laughs it off in a slightly patronising way, because apparently death threats are nothing serious. He has no work for her to do yet, so she goes home and he goes for a walk.

It’s taken fifty pages, two point-of-view chapters and a walk through London for Strike to think about the fact that he has a prosthetic leg, and it gets half a line before the subject changes. Modern prosthetics are incredible, it may well be possible to forget you’re even wearing one a lot of the time, I wouldn’t know, but Strike’s isn’t one of those, it’s the standard plastic kind. We don’t find out for quite a while what actually happened, but to save you the irritation I felt at chapters of hints before getting any real information – he was some kind of military investigator/police figure, and he was in Afghanistan and he lost most of his lower leg two and a half years before this story opens. Not having researched amputees, I don’t know how easy it is to forget about it, but I suspect Strike’s attitude isn’t normal because it reads as abnormal. Particularly since we find out that he walks with a limp and the stump hurts because he’s gained weight and the prosthetic doesn’t fit properly; Rowling apparently doesn’t realise that he would still be receiving regular checkups on the NHS and if it didn’t fit they’d measure him for a new one. Despite being in pain all the time, Strike goes for walks a lot, and is usually described as ambling, walking determinedly, and other adjectives that don’t fit with this. At the end of this chapter there is one sentence that vaguely hints that Rowling may have heard of phantom-limb, which is the only mention of that in the whole book. As we’ll see in Harry Potter, she usually fails at showing long-term consequences of anything, physically or psychologically.

I can’t blame Rowling for not wanting to make the character’s injury the core of his characterisation, of course; his being an amputee doesn’t define him. But ignoring it entirely does negate the point of making him an amputee in the first place. Near the end of the book there’s a scene that I suspect was the only reason for Strike to have a false leg, since it really does add nothing to his character at all, and it’s not a good reason.

Anyway, Strike has a possible murder case to think about as well as his leg, but he would much rather angst about his ex-fiancée Charlotte. At least half the book will pass before we’ll learn what happened; all we know at this point is that she’s tried to leave him numerous times and he’s always talked her into trying again, but now that he’s the one who’s decided it’s over, that’s obviously the real end of the relationship. There are vague hints that she might have lied about a pregnancy at one point, and some more hints that she lied about everything all the time, and that she caused a scene that morning. Oh good, the hysterical deceitful woman trope. This is a pretty misogynistic book.

He does briefly review the actual case he’s being paid to investigate, in between the angsting about refusing to tell any of his friends his engagement has ended because he would rather sleep on his office floor than have anyone who cares about him feeling sorry for him; he calls a friend in the police to get the phone number of the detective assigned to the suicide. John did the rest of the work for him, leaving him several pages of notes and CCTV photos and the phone number of the security guard in Lula’s apartment building. Two black guys were seen running nearby at around the time Lula died. That’s pretty much it so far.

And that’s the end of Part One, even though nothing much has happened. We’ve met our protagonist and his sidekick, they’ve met each other, and the case that forms the plot has been opened. This could have been done in one chapter, two at a push; it took seven.

Part Two coming soon, containing a brief bit of actual plot and a whole lot of angst, backstory, and irritating hints.

The Cuckoo’s Calling:
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five


Posted by on April 29, 2014 in loten


Tags: , , , , , ,

12 responses to “The Cuckoo’s Calling, part one

  1. emmyaist

    May 2, 2014 at 9:21 am

    Hello Loten & Mitchell

    I haven’t read this post above the comment box yet (sorry, will do), but I desperately wanted to share Rowling’s latest tweet with you somehow:

    I mean… the sheer cheek of it. Amazing. I actually laughed out loud.

    • Loten

      May 2, 2014 at 12:56 pm

      So did I, in horrified disbelief. Like hell! Good grief. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • mcbender

      May 2, 2014 at 1:15 pm

      Oh god, she actually said that? I have no words. Thank you for bringing it to our attention 🙂

  2. Ani J. Sharmin

    May 3, 2014 at 11:26 pm

    One of the things I didn’t like about this book is the lack of character development for Robin. When she started the story, I was really excited that maybe the whole story (or at least half) would be from her point of view, and I was disappointed that she was a side character. The annoying girlfriend trope bothered me as well.

    I find it odd that you say that Cormoran Strike is the first Good Guy who’s not pretty. From what I remember, most of the characters seem to be average-looking, except for a few, but maybe I’m remembering incorrectly. Plus, characters like Hermione, Hagrid, weren’t pretty. (Especially Hermione; one of the things she gets made fun of for is her appearance.)

    @emmyaist: Rowling very rarely tweets at all, or updates anything on her website. I’m guessing she only posted that because the fans have turned 2 May into a kind of holiday in the fandom, saying how much we miss the characters, etc. It’s mostly likely a response to fan interest.

  3. Loten

    May 4, 2014 at 7:25 am

    Yeah, Robin really got shafted in the end, I comment in the next part that she vanishes into thin air and her POV dries up completely.

    Most of the characters in HP don’t get full descriptions, actually, but all the bad guys are specifically pointed out as being unattractive, except the Malfoys. As for Hermione, that’s only true while she’s too young for it to matter, it’s more of a Sue flaw – witness the Yule Ball where she suddenly becomes pretty and then gets treated as a proper Good Guy. And Hagrid’s not fully human so that doesn’t count. Still, it’s a good point, I should have said Strike’s the first Good Guy who’s /explicitly/ not pretty.

  4. mary

    July 15, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    Haven’t read this yet, though my younger sister enjoyed it. But it’s interesting about the prosthetic leg, and Afghanistan. All I could think as I read that was that it was a deliberate reference to John Watson, of Sherlock Holmes fame.

    • Loten

      July 15, 2014 at 8:18 pm

      You’re probably right, although anyone invoking war wounds these days is going to go for either Afghanistan or Iraq.


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