Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling and other fails

I'm not surprised it didn't take readers long to figure out that Robert Galbraith was a pen name for J.K. Rowling because The Cuckoo's Calling is so obviously written from a woman's point of view. Not, as Seinfeld would say, that there's anything wrong with that, but it does make you wonder why Joanne Rowling, or her publishers, are so keen to mask her gender, first with the neutral "J.K." and now with a masculine pseudonym.

But that's not my beef with this book. I loved the Harry Potter books for the language, the wit, the bright turns and twists of plot, the sheer unbridled imagination. I can understand why Rowling would want to use a pen name to write something else without being overshadowed by these crossover children's books, but I don't think mystery thriller is her genre.

I found this book, after an opening with some energy, plodding and tedious. Cormoran Strike (points for finding an unusual name) won neither my sympathy nor my interest one-fourth through a 455-page book. A thriller requires suspense, and there is none here. Mildly quirky characters are puzzling over the apparent suicide of a super-model whose life and death is about as interesting as you would suppose, but after 120 pages there's no threat to anybody. Galbraith/Rowling seems happy to meander through London and its pubs letting the story develop ever so slowly while her hero drinks and smokes and mopes over the break-up with his girlfriend.

Strike is a war amputee with a prosthetic replacing the lower half of one leg. It's an interesting nod to Zeitgeist but somehow in a taut thriller there has to be a reason for this. And then my pet peeve -- the author seems to think we need to know every other page or so that her hero smokes. I'm not a fan of smoking in real life and, absent compelling reasons to the contrary, find the habit in fictional characters off-putting. Generally it seems to me an author is being defensive about what is presumably their own habit. I do put up with it if I like the book otherwise -- as in the Chet and Bernie series (though I'm baffled why that author should be so insistent about it in what is clearly a young adult crossover).

The most interesting character in Cuckoo is Robin Ellacott, a young woman who winds up temping for Strike and displays the pluck of a typical Rowling character. Why Rowling couldn't write under a name like Penelope Galbraith and feature a female protagonist like Robin is the only real mystery I see in this whole undertaking.

I've not had much luck with George Pelecanos in the past, but his work on "The Wire" and other screenplays is so obviously brilliant I gave it another try with an earlier novel, Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go. I'm abandoning it one-fifth of the way through because I'm bored. Bored, I say. The hard-boiled dialogue falls flat and the whole shtick of the detective-bartender-alcoholic just seems dated. It's no wonder that Pelecanos abandoned the first-person narrator Nick Stefanos (get it, a Greek-American) fairly quickly. After the initial set-up -- a mildly interesting binge that results in Nick being sort of passed out by the Anacostia River so that he can sort of witness a murder -- the story gets bogged down with the hero drinking and smoking and moping not just about his girlfriend but about his pitiful situation in general. Enough said.

I also gave up on Swamplandia, again one-fifth through it. This is clearly more serious stuff. Karen Russell's book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (another nail in the coffin of that exercise) and Russell was a recipient of one of the latest genius grants. The writing is fine, but the first-person narrative by the 13-year-old (precocious) daughter of an alligator wrestler doesn't do much for me. The story is supposedly based on Russell's own background, though I find that hard to believe, and the language in any case is too self-knowing and artificial to be convincing. I would be tempted to attribute the success of this book to the chick lit-ization of modern publishing.

I of course reserve the right to return to any of these books in a different mood and find them wonderful. But I don't think so.

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