- July 25th, 2013
As it was JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books that made me first post anything on the internet, it seemed appropriate that the first thing that I posted on this journal was a review of her latest work (written under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith). I’d be delighted to hear the views of anyone else who’s read the book, and get a discussion going!
[I've had real trouble trying to get this to format under a spoler or lj-cut, so instead, I'm trying to post this without the cut. My apologies; be aware: ] SPOILERS BELOW!
First and foremost, I think Rowling has created a tremendous new addition to the roster of fictional private detectives: Cormoran Strike has a name to rival Sherlock Holmes’, and a backstory so colourful that in my mind’s eye, I can see his strong hairy arms holding onto a flagpole, his body horizontal, his uneven legs creating even more the image of a flapping flag, doing duty at a Gay Pride parade.
Not that there is anything gay about Strike: the reader is drawn into his (heterosexual) romantic entanglements even before the mystery starts, and they play a large part in making him a rounded and sympathetic character. We have a chap who’s tough (a decorated and maimed veteran of Afghanistan) but vulnerable, huge (but a bit podgy round the middle), with a childhood that marks him not only as a survivor, but fortuitously leaves him rather well-connected. I think it’s a remarkable stroke that Rowling can make this paragon likeable and interesting.
His sidekick Robin (seriously) is rather less well drawn, and has a whiff of a Mills & Boon heroine to her. Set in a fifties film. Or an Enid Blyton book. Rowling uses adjectives like ‘eagerly’ and ‘intelligently’ to describe her actions/speech; the following gives a good flavour:
Upon their arrival in Alderbrook Road, however, he had said:
‘If you spot anything, or you think of anything I haven’t, tell me, won’t you?’
This was rather thrilling: Robin prided herself on her observational powers; they were one reason she had secretly cherished the childhood ambition that the large man beside her was living. She looked intelligently up and down the street….
They both feel written as if Rowling is deliberately holding back – that we’ll find out more about them in the next book (which she has just completed). And the thing is, I want to read more of their adventures. That restraint shows her skill, because it’s hard to do, I think.
The writing, as in Rowling’s earlier books, makes the story easy to read. The one factor which seems surprising is that she jumps from one person’s view to another – usually between Cormoran and Robin – almost in the same sentence. My knowledge of POVs comes mostly from seeing people complain about them, and googling, but as I understand it, the Harry Potter books are written pretty much in a third person limited view – almost always Harry’s – so I can’t agree with a review I read which suggests that most crime writers write in third person limited and she ought to learn how to do it. It has to be deliberate. I do like a mixed narrative – I have enjoyed writing different viewpoints in fanfic, and I think it can add something to the story –tension, for example, when the reader knows something that the protagonist doesn’t. The labelled chapter-change POVs in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series takes it right to the extreme. It works. In The Cuckoo’s Calling, the swaps are so swift it feels a bit odd; but you do know who’s thinking what, so I’m all for Rowling going with what she wants, and challenging all those who try and lay down rules about what can and can’t be done by an author.
I’ve got a bit of a problem, though, with some other things. There are text errors in the story: when I hit the third within the first 60 odd pages, I got all anal and started jotting them down. It’s not her fault at all, but makes me cross that it hasn’t been proof-read properly; surely this is one of the things the publishers are being paid for when I buy a book? It’s not free fanfic, after all – and good fanfic writers try to eliminate such mistakes, because they distract the reader.
I’ve also got a bit of an issue with some of the story elements, and I’d really like to hear other people’s views on them, in case I’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Come to think of it, many of them are very visual things. I can’t picture how they work. Here we go:
1) In the first paragraph, we have the white tent in the middle of the road. Whether pushed or fallen, I find it hard to see how the body would get that far. Surely she would have fallen on the pavement (if not into the area – there must be one, given there are a swimming pool, etc, down under the ground floor)? The flat was on the third floor – not that high. And if it had fallen into the middle of the road, I can’t understand why the body was left there by Wilson and everybody else, without attendant: it might have been the middle of the night, but it’s London: there’s traffic. Someone could have hit the body, or alternatively, had an accident trying to avoid it. Also, again, it’s London: I’ve hardly ever seen snow settled in the middle of the road. And even more importantly, Wilson seems to have been the only person to go and check that she was actually dead. Why did Tansy Bestegui tell Wilson that Lula was dead? She’d seen her fall, but you’d still hope she was alive, and dash out and check, wouldn’t you?
Surely trying to save her life was far more important – and more likely – than worrying about, and chasing after the person who was thought to be in the building? Because if this was the over-riding concern for Tansy, why did she not run out of the building, to safety (despite her state of undress), rather than return to her own flat – presumably left open – with her husband, have an argument, and then only leave, again screaming about a murderer in the building, once the police turned up?
I can’t help thinking of the horrific murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby, in London in May. Despite the presence of his two armed and blood-stained attackers, several women – complete strangers - stayed with the body, hovering over it protectively.
2) Not a visual thing, but a major point: would a suicide verdict really have been given, rather than an open verdict? There was no suicide note, and surely enough doubt. I’ve been reading around the internet to check whether my understanding about this is right, and although, apparently, open verdicts are not encouraged, they are frequently used when there is insufficient evidence to back up a verdict of suicide. The following comes from Liberty’s website, and I think is helpfully explanatory:
· Before this verdict is returned the Coroner or jury should be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the deceased killed him or herself, and intended to do so. This is a high threshold, which is often satisfied only where there is positive evidence of the deceased's intention to kill him or herself, for example a suicide note (this is not usually read in open court). A finding that an individual intended to take his or her own life should only be inferred from the evidence in the clearest circumstances where there can be no other explanation: Re Davies (deceased). The Coroner should be satisfied that the deceased was capable of forming the intention to take his or her own life and was not, for example, acting under a delusion as part of a mental illness or whilst under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If the deceased was suffering from a psychiatric condition when he or she died, the Coroner may record that ‘the deceased killed him or herself whilst suffering from a psychiatric illness.’
· Open verdict: An open verdict is appropriate where there is insufficient evidence to record any of the other verdicts, i.e. the evidence fails to meet the required proof.
Given the lack of a suicide note in the story, that Lula had quite clearly been planning for her future, and the fact that both her friends and her brother did not think she would commit suicide, such a verdict seems highly unlikely.
3) The major, major bit that doesn’t make sense to me – I can’t visualise how this could be possible, is in the exposition at the end, of how it was done. Strike says to Bristow:
‘After she refused to hand over a cheque, and slammed the door in your face, you went back down the stairs, and there was the door to Flat Two standing open. Wilson and the alarm repairman were busy looking at the keypad, and Lechsinka was somewhere in there by them – maybe hoovering, because that would have helped mask the noise of you creeping into the hall behind the two men.’
I’m sorry. I just can’t picture this at all. The hall is small enough that later, the police officer knocks over the display of roses when they enter the hall (and this scene is weird too – I’ll come back to that!). How could a grown man possibly walk into a hall, however large, through an open door and the two men in the same space (both of whom deal with security in one way or another), not notice him – let alone the cleaner, who is cleaning the flat. She’ll go into every room, won’t she?
But this walking past – I just couldn’t believe it. I felt so deflated and disappointed when this was the denouement of the whole thing. Can someone tell me I’ve got it all wrong?
Especially as, of the same session, Wilson says:
’Lula went out while I was still in there, showin’ the guy the fuse box an’ the panic buttons.’
‘You saw her go out, did you?’
‘Yeah, she passed the open door.’
So he notices a girl walk past outside, but not a man in the same hall? (Also, how long does it take to show the chap the control box?)
In my limited experience of alarm systems, you open the door and have so many seconds to get to the alarm and press the code in before the alarm sounds? So it’s usually in the hall – we have to assume it’s in the hall, yes? Wilson saw Lula pass the front door. So (a) I can’t see how Bristow got past them, and (b), going back to the other weird thing, Wilson says when the police officer came:
‘He asked about the middle flat, so I opened it up with the master key.
‘It was dark, and the alarm went off when we went in. Before I could find the light switch or get to the alarm pad, the copper walked straight into the table in the middle of the hall and knocked over this massive vase of roses.’
Firstly, in the normal way, the alarm shouldn’t go off, should it? If alarms did that, they’d drive the owner and all the neighbours bonkers. So did the alarm go off because Bristow hadn’t set it in his hurry? That would be a reasonable assumption, but then, surely, the police and Wilson would have to deduce that someone had been in there and not set it – but there is no follow up on this ‘wrong’ thing, is there? And why, suspecting that there might be a murderer hiding, would the police officer enter before the light was switched on? Light switches are usually in useful places, aren’t they? Wilson knows the flat; it couldn’t have taken more than a second. Just to confuse matters, Strike supposes, in his laying it out stuff at the end, that Bristow had set the alarm – which makes no sense when Wilson had told him it had gone off.
Also, to make the story work, Bristow has to have been in Flat Two for sixteen hours or so. Really? Firstly, that he does it. Secondly, that there was no evidence of his occupation: no flushed toilet, used basin, wee in the loo, crumpled cushion on the sofa? He looked out of the window but not a single shadow of him appears in any of the photographers’ pictures? Thirdly, that he is supposed to be at his mother’s all that time. If she was so ill (and so well off) how come only family have been there? He’s a working man: the family are very well off, in theory; later on, a convenient McMillan nurse opens the door to Strike; how come there was no private nurse or care arranged, if she was so poorly, nor even her regular cleaner around that day? Would he really leave his mother, straight out of hospital and apparently so woozy that she is incapable of knowing whether he was there or not, alone on that day for sixteen hours?
There are other bits – not quite so essential, but still bizarre – that don’t work for me. Why would anyone accept that Tony would drive up to Oxford – from London – and then nip back to see his mother – in London – before going back up to Oxford? It doesn’t make any sense at all.
And in the last chapter, not to do with the mystery, but setting up more character stuff for the next book, we have:
‘[Matthew] had sat for hours in Casualty while they stitched Strike up, waiting to take Robin home.’ Then five lines later, ‘But surely Matthew would like Strike, if only he met him?’
How did he not meet him in Casualty?
Despite the disappointment, I enjoyed reading the book and will certainly give the next one a go. Strike has the potential to be a great detective to follow: he’s likeable, and so is Robin, which is more than one can say for most of the characters in The Casual Vacancy. I can see Rowling writing this pair forever:
If anyone reads this, and has read the book, I look forward to hearing your thoughts! </lj-cut>