Friday, September 27, 2013

Did JK Rowling write the next great detective mystery? Of course not.

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” is a 464 page piece of crime fiction (aka detective mystery), published by Mulholland Books, an imprint of ‘Little, Brown and Company’. The name of the author printed on the cover is of Robert Galbraith, a former Royal Military Police. However, if you read the novel, even without knowing of the media buzz that shrouded the novel four months ago, you’ll easily come to the conclusion that this novel most probably wasn’t written by a military man, not even by a male author. The care for details, especially the romantic, fantasy (portrayed in distinct colorful feminine POV) and fashion is incredibly exhaustive—sometimes amazingly gratifying, and many a time way off the mark…Jane Austin style. And truly, it’s written by a female author that has nothing to do with guns or military (frankly not even the real world of tough rugged men), yet one with amazing writing power. JK Rowling.

But, why write under a pseudonym if she is beyond being adequately famous? Because the author’s last year’s first literary novel failed bars set high by her earlier, immensely popular young adult, work featuring the young wizard. On release, “Casual Vacancy” was barraged by charges of negative, even savage, reviews.

JK Rowling daren’t test the new waters without caution the following time. Her latest novel was released under a pseudonym to test public and critical reception. Luckily, the new novel garnered adequately positive reviews and a warm reception—yet no increase in sales followed. A publicity stunt was pulled (whether it was the publisher’s or the author’s or really a journalistic scoop, one can only guess). It was revealed that ‘the Cuckoo’s Calling’ is JKR’s, and the novel raced to the top of the charts instantaneously. The author was relieved, and the publisher won back their investment, and much more of course.

JKR’s last year’s novel, ‘the Casual Vacancy’—her first venture in grown-ups’ literature—was a jump too high for the incredibly famous young adult author. Deluded by the celebrity halo above her head, she dared into a tempting, yet treacherous arena; literary fiction. How readers and reviewers received this daring was far from amicable. 

However, for this year’s novel, she straightened up and obviously reclined to a spotlight with a literary bar presumably set much lower: genre fiction. She went for the popular crime/detective mystery fiction. A Brit, Rowling didn’t embrace the robust American thriller style; instead went for the British classic deliberate style of the whodunit subgenre—one held in higher esteem amongst vintage mystery readers in Britain and Europe.

In my opinion that was a mistake. JKR missed her mark once again. I think she should have definitely opted for a more dynamic modern approach—one distinctive of her more successful Harry Potter works, as well as popular with the wider, more youthful audience—many of whom, by the way, grew reading her work and loved it.

Modern crime fiction evolved from the classic European detective novel to serve both the writer and the reader…however, the real stimulus for evolution was chiefly to rescue the sleuth sculptors from their increasingly limited options. Plots and storylines were impetuously exhausted in the early days of the genre’s golden era. Readers more frequently (and easily) spotted a familiar plot way before the sleuth boosted his spoils. Another was the fact that fans of detective fiction were a limited niche. Writers needed to attract more readers as well.

To get a leeway to beautify their text, and fundamentally to cover up their plots’ pitfalls, writers had to enrich their arsenal with more than mere intellect and a clever plot; they had to drown the readers in a plethora of experiences.

Keep the suspense and add in the thriller and there you have the modern crime fiction.

Commercial fiction exploits readers’ emotions in every possible way; gluing their eyeballs to the fun intelligent parts and distracting them away from pitfalls—in modern crime fiction this tactic is applied aplenty…the best of writers abuse it day and night.

However, this new form of mystery writing was always derided by zealots of pure, tight and perfect detective mysteries. It’s also a fact that fans of crime fiction of even the most popular authors or heroes seldom revisit a novel after reading it. It was almost always a one-time ride.

The classic whodunit novel shines here: it’s a gratifying write for the author, and potentially a great read for every true fan of detective mysteries.

If just one novel is done aptly, the author is catapulted to the rank of the greats. Many a detective mystery writer is remembered just by his one sleuth in his one great whodunit. Even the greatest of them all, Agatha Christie, is remembered by a handful of novels. However, writing a tight plot, fail-safe detective mystery is most elusive, even for the properly initiated writer. As just said, many a famous writer just hit the sweet spot just once or twice in their entire career. What about Mrs. JK Rowling, the novice detective mystery writer? Has she written the latest great whodunit?

Of course, not.

So, am I saying the Cuckoo’s Calling is a flop? If so, why the glowing positive reviews for the novel, in the first place? Even before it was revealed it was written by JKR?

Many readers and reviewers praised Rowling’s latest effort. She has written a novel; one that is enjoyable, fun, and rich with real-life, real size characters. The 464-page long work is full of picturesque descriptions of contemporary London, its pubs, and architecture; dialogue is crisp, fun, and natural (yet very un-Harry Potterish).

However, I find two major problems with “the Cuckoo’s Calling”.

First, it was slow…ultra, super slow. Other than Lula Landry’s murder on the first page, no real advancement happens until 80% of the novel is over; just trickling of information here and there, some rumination, lots of memories and human interactions. Action is absent…nothing really happens for a very long time. Stagnation is a deplorable crime, unimaginable by modern standards of mystery writing, yet tolerated by purists if there was a good detective story at the end. But was there any?

Here comes my second major problem; it never really worked as a serious whodunit. Flaws are sprinkled everywhere in the plot. I can make a list of critical plot and character mistakes, and it’ll cross twenty easily. It’ll suffice highlighting just the biggest one without spoiling the plot: every suspect in the novel could really have committed the crime. The sleuth’s revelation in the end of the story could easily suit any of the suspects, just substitute the motive, and it fits perfectly—simply because what the sleuth said in the end was pure speculation. Nothing throughout the entire length of the novel justified his omniscient knowledge. In a true perfect detective mystery, when the villain is revealed in the end, you shout in awe, saying, ‘how did I miss him?’ The real culprit is carefully cloaked throughout, but when finally disclosed, it’s beyond doubt that no one but him could possibly have committed the crime.

IMHO, ‘the Cuckoo’s Calling’ succeeds when viewed in a wholly different light…as a Soap Mystery. This novel appeases the fantastic imagination, and tickles the emotions…of women—just checking Amazon reviews easily establishes the novel’s huge success with female readers. The novel was written by a woman, and it’s no shame in appeasing a female readership (the majority of readers BTW), and in that light it’s a success.

My real objection was JKR’s impulse, and the publisher’s clear intent of publicizing the novel as the next Sherlock Holmes meets Philip Marlowe or Hercules Poirot meets Sam Spade. The novel never worked that way.

Some might perceive my words as digging at a more famous, more successful writer; they weren’t meant to be. For twenty seven years I’ve been an almost exclusive reader of mystery & thriller fiction (in various languages, settings, subgenres, and eras), and a writer myself for the past eight years; I know what makes a good mystery and what doesn’t. As talented and pro as she might be, JK Rowling is not a crime fiction writer.

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