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A wizard at mysteries

Rowling's gifts on display in her first detective novel

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Whether she's writing about adolescent wizards, small-town Brits or a frumpy, one-legged detective, whatever J.K. Rowling puts to paper falls under the spell of her almost flawless talent for storytelling, as she proves in her surprise new book.

Originally published in the spring under a pseudonym -- Robert Galbraith, a retired military man -- and less than a year after her so-called adult debut, The Casual Vacancy, Rowling's second novel in her post-Harry Potter existence (and ninth overall) set the literary world atwitter when the author's true identity was revealed (by her lawyer's wife, it turns out) a couple of weeks ago.

The novel did well with critics but sold poorly. However, the revelation of the real woman behind the story has naturally catapulted The Cuckoo's Calling to the top of bestseller lists around the world.

With it have come the usual stories of those dim-witted publishers who foolishly turned the book down, thus building a mystery within a mystery.

Set in London, the story opens with the death of supermodel Lula Landry. (Rowling fans will likely notice the tell-tale signs of her style, such as alliterative names -- clues that may have tipped astute readers off earlier.)

Lula's death is deemed a suicide by police. But her adoptive brother is determined that she was murdered and he hires Cormoran Strike, a struggling private investigator whose personal life is in shambles, to uncover the truth.

It seems fitting that Rowling should set her sights on mystery novels, as her gift for weaving together countless, seemingly unrelated stories is the perfect one for this type of story.

As in her previous works, Rowling has an uncanny knack for neatly tying up plot threads (often with surprising results) that almost have no business working together.

Her talent for managing large casts is demonstrated here as well, creating a vivid and complete picture, both physically and psychologically, of every character.

Her love of outcasts also plays a role in Lula's upbringing, and in typical style, she manages to make you fall madly in love with the heros and loathe the villains.

Rowling's simple but layered prose moves the story along at a clipping pace. Even her painstakingly detailed descriptions of rooms and people seem to help the tale gather momentum rather than stalling it.

Some of the most entertaining details surround the clothing, situations and people that made up the deceased supermodel's glamorous life.

So perfect are Rowling's descriptions of a modelling photo shoot, a handbag with removable lining and a particular pink coat that it seems laughable that anyone believed a retired male military officer wrote them.

One of the notable details of the book is how Rowling cannily gives reasons for everyone's innocence and guilt, so that you'll be changing your guess throughout.

Everyone from two mystery men running down a street, captured on closed-circuit TV in the dark, to Lula's own family members are thrown into suspicion. Admittedly, the technique does also work against the ending slightly, as it removes some of the shock of the big truth.

Readers of Nora Roberts, Janet Evanovich and even Dan Brown will likely enjoy The Cuckoo's Calling. Fans of Rowling's previous books should enter into it with an open mind.

While it's unlikely Rowling will ever surpass or even match the brilliance of the adventures of the boy wizard who launched her to stardom, no matter what she writes is sure to be a compelling tale that will leave you wanting more.


Nisha Tuli is a Winnipeg writer and diehard Harry Potter fan.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 A1


Updated on Sunday, July 28, 2013 at 12:35 AM CDT: Edits formatting.

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