The Cormoran Strike novels

February 16, 2015 at 7:17 am 10 comments

cuckooIn an attempt to kick-start my reading habits after my January of readerly apathy, I recently turned to an old favorite genre: mystery. I used to read mystery novels constantly, starting with the Amelia Peabody books as my gateway drug and veering from there off into Arthur Conan Doyle, Anne Perry, and Sharon Kay Penman. These books were, for me, the equivalent of a movie as far as pastime went: entertaining, unchallenging (mostly), and quick.

I haven’t read mysteries in a while, so I forgot how purely enjoyable they could be. They are the most satisfying kind of “comeuppance stories” — the villains are inevitably caught by our intrepid and intelligent heroes and heroines, who, in turn, live happily in the satisfaction of a job well done with another adventure to look forward to. (For mysteries are, almost without exception, series. There is something irresistibly serial about a mystery solved well.)

The past few weeks, I expanded my scope a little bit and moved into from my comfort zone of historical mysteries into the contemporary mystery/thriller genre. The last time I delved down this particular path, I came away rather disappointed and a little disgusted (somehow contemporary mysteries really favor the more gruesome and the hyper-violent). So this time I hedged my bets a little by going to a familiar and favorite author for my dose of contemporary crime: J.K. Rowling, albeit writing as Robert Galbraith.

I read both The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, the only two books in Rowling/Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series thus far, and found myself rather enjoying them. Even though there was very little on-paper to appeal to me about the series (both books are about a wounded war veteran-turned-private detective and his eager secretary trying to outsmart the police and everyone else), book Cuckoo and Silkworm were somehow better than their loglines might suggest.

Both books fell squarely in my mystery-novel-as-movie zone — they were swift, entertaining reads — and both were plotted expertly, which is no mean feat. As short a shrift as mysteries typically get as far as literary merit goes, mysteries are one of the most difficult types of story to write well.

There’s the G.K. Chesterton approach, where the intro and crime itself are spot-on, only to flounder at the crime-solving part. Then there’s the Agatha Christie approach, where everything is so vague that you have no idea what’s going on until the final denouement (see also: Doyle occasionally).
silkworm
But few are the authors who are able to nail all three parts of a good mystery story — the set-up, the mystery/event itself, and solving said mystery — without making the whole thing tedious, obvious, and/or pedantic. Rowling/Galbraith uses her plotting skills (undoubtedly honed over her seven, elaborately well-planned, Harry Potter books) to good effect in the realm of mystery, presenting all kinds of evidence, suspects, and red herrings that urge the reader along without revealing too much.

While both books were plenty enjoyable, and just the ticket to lift me out of a reading slump, I would say I liked Cuckoo slightly better. This surprised me considerably since Silkworm is all about the London publishing industry and literary community, a topic I was eager to explore. In fact, I only read Cuckoo in the first place so I could get to Silkworm!

But I found the second go round with Cormoran Strike (the PI) and his secretary (Robin) less engaging than the first. Learning more about both of them hardly endeared either and their strange relationship, lurching between possible romance and total mutual disinterest, was less interesting and more irritating as it dragged on. I honestly have no idea where Rowling/Galbraith is going with either of them (other than perhaps full-out exhaustion in the case of Strike) and, after Silkworm, I’m not sure I care to stick around and find out.

All the same, if you’re looking for a contemporary mystery, you could do far worse than the Cormoran Strike books. Rowling’s humor and skill at weaving a good story are in full evidence, even if the appeal of her leads falters in the second book. And, as my housemate put it, it’s kind of nice to have another series to look forward to as an adult from the same delightful author who created so many summers of anticipation as a child.

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Entry filed under: Mystery. Tags: , , , .

‘The Culture Clash’ by Jean Donaldson Living without my books

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sheryl  |  February 16, 2015 at 9:20 am

    I’ve probably recommended these before, but along similar lines of the mystery book as movie escape is Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. They start with the book “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.” Flavia is an 11 year old would be detective whose love of chemistry and causing trouble have her solving mysteries in and around her small town of Bishop’s Lacey. I think you might enjoy.

    Reply
    • 2. Corey  |  February 16, 2015 at 9:30 am

      YES! Thank you for reminding me of these; I’ve been wanting to read them.

      Reply
      • 3. Kate  |  February 19, 2015 at 10:22 am

        I think they are definitely up your alley! Very English, very charming, precocious young heroine.

        Reply
        • 4. Sheryl  |  February 19, 2015 at 10:53 am

          Glad you agree, Kate! It’s always good to know that you are not alone in recommending a book to someone. I always have a nagging worry that they won’t like the book and then never listen to one of your book suggestions again! Such recommedation angst I have!

        • 5. Corey  |  February 19, 2015 at 2:57 pm

          But you are SUCH a good book-recommender, Sheryl! You shouldn’t worry, I don’t think you’ve ever recommended anything remotely dud-ly. :)

  • 6. Kate  |  February 23, 2015 at 10:49 am

    So…I was also in a slump, so I found The Cuckoo’s Calling! I liked it immensely, and I think it has it all — glitz and glamour with a bit of grittiness in there. Brilliant plot.

    Two small comments:
    1) Cormoran Strike and Mikael Blomkvist seem to both suffer from “James Bond Syndrome” — gorgeous women falling all over themselves to sleep with them. At least Mikael is generally described as attractive.

    2) I would think you’d enjoy the Josh-and-Donna relationship Cormoran and Robin have going on! Poor Robin.

    Reply
    • 7. Corey  |  February 25, 2015 at 1:56 pm

      Ugh, yes to the James Bond Syndrome. It happens in Silkworm, too. I can only assume gruffness and lack of interest is translating into mystery and allure to these women.

      And I just didn’t think Cormoran and Robin had any kind of chemistry (as in: barely had even interpersonal, professional chemistry, let alone romantic). My book club had a great chat about this weekend, though, and we all hoped that Rowling is just starting at the ground floor with Robin and giving her lots of room to grow as a character.

      And I guess I’m also frustrated at not knowing where they are going as a pair — they don’t have the obvious romantic connection that Josh and Donna had nor do they have a more platonic thing going. It’s just that crackle of *something*. This not knowing is actually kind of interesting since it is more realistic to have two people NOT slot instantly into the canonically-approved routes a male/female relationship could go, but something about it still grates for me.

      (This is also, in fairness, reacting more to Silkworm than Cuckoo, which did more satisfying work with them and then Silkworm simply does not follow through.)

      Reply
      • 8. Kate  |  February 28, 2015 at 10:42 am

        I think you’re right. Part of the reason there’s not any chemistry, either platonically or romantically, is because Robin won’t let there be — she’s being held back by Matthew from even having an interest in detective work, let alone in Cormoran. I think there are going to be major changes in the next book regarding Robin’s character and circumstances.

        And maybe that’s what grates? This woman is clearly in charge of her own life, but she does go around moaning a little bit that her fiancee won’t let her be who she is. I mean, if that’s true, maybe she should work on that?

        Reply
  • […] I’ve been having a very mystery-centric few weeks. First, there were the Cormoran Strike books, chosen because my Nantucket book club decided on The Cuckoo’s Calling as its February […]

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  • […] mystery or thriller (Popsugar): The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert […]

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