You know why The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith wasn’t widely reviewed when it first came out?
Here’s my thought:
On page 15, Robin Ellacott, a “tall and curvacious” young secretary, is about to enter the office of a world-weary private investigator named Cormoran Strike for the first time. At that moment, Cormoran, a big guy around 210 pounds, rushes out the door and crashes into her.
Robin falls backward, dangerously close to the open stairwell behind her, but Cormoran “seize(s) a fistful of cloth and flesh” and, “with a wrench and a tussle,” pulls her toward him to safety.
But wait. What is it he gets hold of to save her — an arm? a coat? a belt? No, “he saved her by grabbing a substantial part of her left breast.”
Oh. He — um, wait. He reaches out, grabs her breast through a few layers of clothes and hauls her in like a marlin? Robin must weigh over 100 pounds, right? Yet he saves her from falling into the stairwell only by his grip on her … Well, I don’t think that’s possible. His hand just couldn’t get enough purchase to …
Come, Mr. Galbraith: Do your homework. Do you think breasts so literally fit the term “knockers” that one simply grabs and pulls, as though closing a door by its doorknob?
We do know that Robin screams as she “double(s) up in pain against the office door, whimpering.” Later Galbraith tells us her breast is “still sore,” especially when her fiance “buried his face in her neck and cupped and stroked the breast that bore the bruises.”
Ick. As the investigation continues, Galbraith sounds like a neo Harold Robbins (soft porn novelist of yesteryear). Then Cormoran interviews an anorexic woman whose “two full, firm breasts jutted from her narrow ribcage, as though they had been borrowed for the day from a fuller-figured friend.”
Honestly, men and their breast fixations!
At this point I would have tossed The Cuckoo’s Calling in the REJECT pile. It’s the 21st century, after all. You’d think Robert Galbraith would know better.
And — ta da! — it turns out that she does! “She” being the famously successful J.K. Rowling, who, the world learned after her secret was leaked to the press in London, wrote this book under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. She wanted to discover if she could succeed as an unknown writer, without all that Harry Potter fame getting in the way.
Unfortunately, a lot more gets in her way as a mystery writer (mediocrity for one), but before we get to that, let’s ask: What could have convinced the savvy Rowling (who surely understands female anatomy) to think the breast-grabbing scene on page 15 would work?
My guess is that she placed it there for comic effect. She wanted Cormoran’s embarrassment at grabbing Robin’s breast to add to his character as an old fashioned “loser” in everything but solving murders. He’s alcoholic, broke, camping out in the (shabby) office after dumping his (gorgeous) wife. He spills things, cuts himself shaving, insults people and makes social blunders.
So to be fair, Rowling might have thought that in the private-eye genre where heroes like Mike Hammer and Travis McGee routinely ogle “curvaceous” young women, it would be humorous that Corcoran would, after the collision scene on page 15, spend the rest of the book going overboard to show Robin he’s not a lecherous groper. He makes a point of sitting far away from her, turning his gaze fully away from anything remotely near Robin’s chest, and so forth.
This would be amusing, except it’s handled so clumsily that you have to figure the author is too new to writing mysteries to get this novel started in a light, deft, authoritative way.
There is evidence that Rowling can be a hugely creative storyteller (ergo the Harry Potter series) but on occasion not a very good writer, as critics have remarked while bashing her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy.
Here, though, The Cuckoo’s Calling starts out like a thousand other detective stories, uses one gimmick after another (the hero’s name is Cormoran Strike, for heaven’s sake) and stumbles into a number of rookie mistakes.
For example, present-participle phrases repeated over and over can become a crutch, as these quotes may demonstrate:
“Savoring the moment, she approached…”
“throwing out a long arm, he seized… ”
“Hardly aware that he had moved, he found…”
“Diving under his desk into his kitbag, he seized… ”
Sitting down at Strike’s invitation, Bristow looked…
“Concentrating on keeping her high heels from catching on the metal work stairs, she proceeded …”
This is a kind of addiction that novice writers fall into but can’t see. It brings a sing-songy rhythm to the narrative, making the story sound kind of silly. So does using too many semi-colons, which Rowling does, as well as too many unnecessary pauses, such as these:
“It had been, in Robin’s view, the most perfect …”
“Robin was, by any standards, a pretty girl …”
“She therefore relied, as often as not, on poorly hand-drawn maps…”
“She was, in fact, not far off …”
Such repetition also brings an amateurish feel to the first 50 pages of this “first novel,” and that’s really the reason I think The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith didn’t get a wide reception.
It’s also why I cheered when Rowling was outed, because once the mystery gets going, she’s her old self again. Cormoran Strike comes across as a gifted, witty, meticulous detective who finds a perfect sidekick in the unexpectedly resourceful and smart-as-a-whip Robin. Together the two surprise each other with their steely curiosity, their determination, their leaps of logic, their increasingly sophisticated banter.
At a time in commercial fiction when so many sleuths are little more than cogs in crime-fighting bureaucracies, it’s refreshing to meet an old-fashioned private detective and assistant who deduce and intuit their way into esoteric circles without benefit of badge or uniform.
So I’ll look forward to seeing you next time, Mister Galbraith, when you clean up your act and grow with the series.