This month I’ve decided to review two crime novels. Next to my personal preference for literary fiction, it’s probably the genre I’m most familiar with. After all, most of it purports to deal with real people in real time, unlike sci-fi or fantasy. Many works of literary fiction contain a crime (The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters for instance which I reviewed last month) so I’m not that far out of my comfort zone here. And just to make things a bit more interesting I thought I’d subject my choices to a little forensic analysis of my own and look at the different elements contained within a crime novel to try and discover what makes a good one.
I begin with The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling. It’s her first foray into the genre and her personal attempt at deceit, i.e. using a pseudonym to disguise her real identity, which did not last long as she was soon unmasked. Her hero, Cormoran Strike, took an awful lot longer to get to the bottom of things in the book and you will need some stamina (and patience) to plough through the 550 pages it contains. And now that we’ve mentioned him, let’s deal with the matter of ‘the detective’, which is probably the most essential element in a crime novel that we need to assess.
Cormoran Strike is a (Afghanistan?) war veteran. He’s missing part of one leg and uses a detachable prosthetic limb. As you can imagine, this makes mobility difficult so he’s no ‘action’ hero. He’s wounded psychologically, plus the fact that his private life is in a mess. It’s not long before he’s obliged to sleep on a camp bed in the office. All this, of course, is designed to give him ‘character’. Most crime detectives have ‘character’. Sherlock Holmes wore a deer-stalker, smoked a pipe, took heroin and played the violin. Hercule Poirot dresses impeccably, waxes his moustache and eats two boiled eggs for breakfast. But they represent the ‘old school’ of detective and have no meaningful ‘back story’. It seems to me that the modern detective needs more than just plain character and that delving into his/her past personal life (which usually contains something dramatic) has become equally as important as solving the mystery immediately at hand. Their back story is a mystery in itself, and our need to uncover it is partly what makes us want to read the next in the series.
In The Cuckoo’s Calling, we get enough of Cormoran Strike to arouse our curiosity but not enough to satisfy it. A necessary ingredient? Or a cynical device to make us buy the sequel? Hmm…
One would suspect that by nature Strike would be a loner, as is Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie or Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, but J.K. Rowling has decided to partner him up.
The detective’s trusty assistant is a common element in the crime novel – Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings, Morse and Lewis being obvious examples. Strike has (temporary) need of secretarial help, and so up steps Robin. She proves to be exceptionally efficient and has investigative qualities of her own. I was immediately reminded of Della Street, who those of you of my generation will remember performed very much the same task for Perry Mason in the TV adaptation of Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels. No real problem with Watson, Hastings and Lewis but the issue here is that as soon as a man and woman appear in close proximity on screen together one wonders whether there is more to their relationship than that which is professionally required. Who could forget Purdy and Steed in The Avengers for instance? Well, it’s the same with Robin and Strike. Rowling is at pains to give Robin an existing boyfriend, but all is not sweetness and light in that department so the door is open just a tiny crack for something else. Will they get together? And is this a necessary ingredient? Or a cynical device to make us buy the sequel? Hmm…
Our next element is setting. Its importance is reflected in the fact that some crime series are even named after their setting e.g. Broadchurch or Midsomer Murders. I was an avid reader of Simenon’s Maigret collection, not just because of the author’s wonderful prose and masterly dissection of character but also because of the picture he painted of the France he lived in and, in particular, of the seedy underbelly of Paris. SOHO 4AM (Nuala Casey), which I looked at a few months ago, shines as a result of its portrait of its titular subject. The Cuckoo’s Calling is also set in the capital and if The Daily Mail is to be believed ‘Galbraith has a delightful touch for evoking London’. I certainly felt this came across although we have yet to see whether Rowling can do the same for her chosen city as Simenon did for his.
Now let us consider the crime itself – no small matter in a crime novel you might think. But Rowling seems to play this down. When a troubled model falls to her death from a Mayfair balcony, it is assumed that she has committed suicide. We know different of course since without a crime we can’t have a crime novel, but there’s no dramatic murder, no blood, no gore etc. And no opportunity for our private sleuth to crawl about the crime scene either since he doesn’t become involved until three months later when the model’s brother has his doubts and calls in Strike. This late entry into proceedings naturally hampers our hero (if he wasn’t hampered enough) and slows his progress, thereby slowing the book.
This detachment means the investigation takes more of a psychological turn than a purely forensic one and we find ourselves wondering why as much as how.
All of which leads me on to method. Sherlock Holmes is much into physical clues and deduction. CSI is (almost) wholly about forensics while Simenon’s Maigret deals exclusively with personality. Strike’s method seems to be wholly reliant on standard police procedure and the meticulous taking of notes. So the majority of the book is taken up with a series of set pieces in which he questions just about everyone involved in an attempt to pull things together, struggling to get from one interview to the next on his painful prosthetic leg. I did wonder at Rowling’s wisdom in doing this since the combination of method and Strike’s affliction makes for extremely slow and frustrating reading, and at times I found myself pleading with the author to get on with it. There’s little, if any, development of the original plot so just like Strike himself, we tend to get bogged down. Even the second murder, halfway through the affair, fails to inject any pace and seems almost incidental to the main narrative. And as to how Strike finally identifies the culprit, I have to admit I was left in the dark. It may have been that after all that relentless interviewing and dogged false foot-slogging I’d lost the will to live and so consequently missed some vital clue, but I really had no idea. And following my ‘What?! You must be joking!’ outburst I didn’t have enough energy and curiosity to go back and find out. My prime objective at that stage was to finish the last 50 pages rather than be forced to reread the previous 500. Who dunnit? By then I wasn’t sure I cared.
Lastly, let’s consider the matter of ‘issue’. Old school detection didn’t seem to need an ‘issue’. When we read Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple we weren’t being told about the effect of drug-taking on the wider population, or being invited to think about the moral dilemma imposed on society by the early release of convicted murderers who subsequently reoffend etc. We were simply concerned with the solution to the crime at hand. Nowadays that’s changed and we often get given a message as well. The TV drama ‘The Missing’ for instance, is more about the emotional fallout from abduction than the abduction itself. I clearly remember when ‘Cagney and Lacey’ moved from being a straightforward police procedural to something that highlighted issues. I also remember turning it off in disgust as I felt something I had come to rely on for entertainment had thereby been spoilt. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoy the American version of ‘Law and Order’ for the very reason that it does involve an issue – but then I do know of that from the start. Whether The Cuckoo’s Calling is deliberate in its choice of issue, I’m not certain but according to The Times it’s ‘a scintillating novel set in the world of models, rappers, fashion designers, druggies and illicit liaisons. Galbraith delivers sparkling dialogue and a convincing portrayal of the emptiness of wealth and glamour’.
So there you have it and I think I’ve given you enough clues about this crime novel for you to decide whether you want to read it or not. I have and I’ve come to my conclusion. Would I read a sequel? Possibly. How about the one after that? Maybe. And a fourth? Definitely not. Well, you know what they say – three strikes and you’re out.