Sunday, June 29, 2014

Comoran Strike and the Prisoners of Truth

About midway through the first Comoran Strike novel, “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” the hero attends a party for his young nephew. The writer, Robert Galbraith, tells us that Strike “never wanted children.” In the midst of the chaos of a child’s birthday gathering, the narrator observes that “Another child fell over, crashing its head on to the cricket stump decorated with a giant strawberry, and emitting an ear-splitting shriek.” 

The writer, of course, isn’t a “former plain-clothes Royal Military Police investigator who had left the armed forces in 2003 to work in the civilian security industry,” but one of the best-selling children’s authors in publishing history. So the impersonal word choice, the objectification of a child, functions as a way to underline how far we are from Hogwarts in the Strike novels. But we’re not as far one might guess. 

Rowling introduces us first in “The Cuckoo’s Calling” not to her new hero, but to Robin Ellacott, who arrives at Strike’s doorstop from the temporary agency. She is his new personal assistant, even though he doesn’t feel he needs one or can afford one. Her arrival, though, seems fated – not only is Robin nursing a secret interest in investigation, she arrives on the very day that her new boss loses his long-time love interest. The detective’s fashion model lover leaves, and is replaced by the resourceful, quick-thinking – and very engaged – Robin.

To engage our interest, Rowling gives us Strike – whose looks are supposed to remind us of “a limping prize fighter.” After losing his place in army investigations – and his leg – to an IED in Afghanistan, Strike is struggling to build his practice when we first meet him, hovering on the edge of failure, devastated by his latest and most wounding loss. He has poetry on his lips, lives on the outskirts of respectability and celebrity, but he is confident enough of himself to know what he does best. He has a job to do, he tells us, and he means to do it, the best he can.  

If all you know of J.K. Rowling is Harry Potter, then the Strike novels can be a shock. The F-word shows up enough to remind you this isn’t a kid’s story, just like our earlier example of Strike’s obliviousness to the fact that children may be necessary in the world.  I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but I got the impression as I made my way through “The Cuckoo’s Calling” that the journey felt fairly rote and routine. Here is the chapter where we meet the sidekick. This is the main character. Here is the mystery. These are the suspects. Here is the plot twist. Here is the second murder, signaling the accelerated action of the last act, and so on. That does not mean the Strike novels are unimpressive, though the mysteries are overly-elaborate, and might strike you as slightly preposterous when solutions are finally revealed. 

But where the Potter novels dealt with issues in black and white, and great notions in bold capital letters – Good and Evil – Strike is more pedestrian, more at street level. Where Rowling revealed her magical world in the shops of Diagon Alley and the classrooms of Hogwarts, she places Strike firmly in a recognizable London of pubs, posh dinner parties, suspicious married couples and street toughs. At first, he investigates the apparent suicide of the supermodel Lula Landry, while in “The Silkworm,” he probes literary London in search of the missing writer Owen Quine. Aspects of the Princess Diana story occasionally flash to our attention, as well as the British press hacking scandal.  

This is Rowling, though, so everybody lies. Repeatedly. “It frightened people when you were honest,” observes a character in her other novel, “The Casual Vacancy. “ The Potter novels were packed full of concealed facts, fudged stories and expedient explanations. The story begins when Harry is revealed as a wizard, a fact kept from him by his family. In the same way, Strike conceals from most people who he is – the illegitimate son of an aging rocker whom he has only met twice.  Strike encounters face after face in his expeditions in London which conceal the truth, sometimes for no reason.

Truth is dangerous, especially in murder investigations. And murder is the most visible and most attention getting of all manifestations of evil.  It also makes for the most entertaining. Strike has questioned enough people to know when they are lying, and how they reveal themselves. Rowling is adept to point these moments out in little details, but crafty enough to sometimes let Strike reveal them only at the end, for maximum effect. As in any mystery, the truth is harder to deal with for some than others. Manipulating the meaning we find in life sometimes means that we take a life. Strike isn’t necessarily interested in motive though – as much as opportunity. The murderer’s explanations will come out soon enough. 

Like the Potter books, Strike also gives Rowling a platform to talk about the pitfalls of wanted and unsought fame. Strike is never quite sure of anyone’s interest in him – it could be that they want to get closer to his more famous father, just as Harry had to deal with being the most famous wizard in the world. Strike is always smarter than those around him, yet in a quiet, understated way that seeks little attention. He’s had it before and it didn’t make him feel better. He has been wounded by notoriety. 

I’ve seen a few reviews that criticize both of the Strike novels for being overlong and not cutting short his witness interrogations, but I think those comments miss the point. Rowling isn’t just introducing us to information sources as we make our way through the mysteries. She wants these to be people, to illustrate the larger issues of the books. But then again, when you get to the solutions of these mysteries, they seem unnatural and unworthy of the personalities she has given us. When Strike says to the murderer, as “The Silkworm” draws to a close, “Though you had it all worked out, didn’t you?” I’ll confess I laughed. The line sounded like I’d heard it in every whodunit I’ve ever come across. 

If the mysteries don’t quite satisfy as realistic, you don’t really care, because the road getting there is entertaining. In “The Silkworm,” Rowling not only introduces us to writers, publishers and agents and gives an occasionally acidic tour of their world (literally), but she gives us a peek at the dark-side of the imagination that created Potter in the grotesque images of “Bombyx Mori,” the missing writer Quine’s allegorical novel. She creates a self-satisfied prideful male author, and a self-hating female literary agent, and somehow neither manages to come off as clichéd. When her detective wonders why everyone in the literary world has this mania to seek publication, we laugh at what the observation says about that world, the nature of writing, and about the author. 

Rowling has succeeded in crafting two main characters for this series that we will want to revisit again and again. Though the canvas isn’t nearly as grand as that of Harry and his battle against Lord Voldemort, she is using a different palette with earthier, more familiar colors. And as she has already shown, Rowling is very skillful at working magic. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

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