There was a bit of a stir when the warmly received The Cuckoo’s Calling was discovered not to be Robert Galbraith’s debut novel, but that he was in fact a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. The reasons behind the pseudonym seem pretty obvious considering the critical and public reaction to Rowling’s previous novel, The Casual Vacancy. Using a different name allowed Rowling anonymity, where her book could be taken on the value of its content alone, without the hype, expectations and preconceptions that would have come from releasing “J.K. Rowling’s new novel”. And, tellingly, Galbraith got some very good reviews before the secret slipped, with several reviewers finding it hard to believe that The Cuckoo’s Calling could be a debut novel.
The Cuckoo’s Calling is a pretty straight-forward detective story, but is relentlessly entertaining and filled with memorable characters. It tells the story of the death of Lula Landry, a supermodel whose fall from her penthouse apartment was ruled a suicide by the police. Three months after her death, her adopted brother, John Bristow, seeks out Cormoran Strike, a private investigator, who happened to know be friends with Bristow’s brother when the two were children (before Bristow’s brother died after riding his bicycle off a cliff in a quarry). Bristow has an envelope full of theories about Landry’s death, from her no-good druggie of a boyfriend to the two mysterious men caught running from the scene on camera, and is willing to pay Strike twice the going rate despite the rest of the family believe the version of events as told by police.
Strike takes the case, despite the extensive investigation already done by the authorities, because he needs the money. You see, Cormoran Strike is the epitome of “down-on-his-luck”. A huge, burly man, Strike used to be an Army investigator before he lost part of his leg in the war in Afghanistan, and he’s the illegitimate son of a famous rock ‘n roll legend to whom he has only spoken twice. He took out massive loans to start his PI business, only to be languishing with very few cases. He gets frequent death threats from one of his former clients. And to top it all off, he just broke up with his long-term girlfriend/fiancée and is now homeless. There’s a certain bit of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe (or even Dixon Hill) in Strike, who drinks hard and doesn’t shrink away from a confrontation, but his Army Investigation training has made him highly organized and thorough, perfectly suited to the life of a private dick.
But Strike is only half of the equation in The Cuckoo’s Calling, because at the very moment he’s at his lowest he gets sent a new temporary secretary/assistant in the form of Robin Ellacott. Robin recently moved to London after getting engaged to her boyfriend, Matthew, and has been doing temp office jobs while she interviews for something more permanent. When she is assigned by her temp agency to Strike’s office, she is almost knocked over a balcony by Strike as he chases after his girlfriend after their fight, and he awkwardly saves Robin beginning an unusual coworker relationship that provides the heart of the story and allows us to see each of them through the other’s eyes. Robin is neat and efficient, far too skilled to be temping, and shows a cleverness in handling the Lula Landry case that surprises Strike (while secretly thrilled to be working with a detective, which she’s dreamed about for ages). The fact that she shares a name with a famous sidekick is not a coincidence, and The Cuckoo’s Calling is as much her story is as it is Strike’s. As much fun as any mystery/detective story is to try and figure out, I enjoyed their relationship much more than the twists and turns of the case, which is interesting to follow but which is solved perhaps a bit suddenly for my tastes.
To discuss any more of the story would be to give too much away, but it’s a satisfying mystery all the same. It’s not really a surprise that Rowling would write a detective story, as many of the Harry Potter books were also detective stories, with Harry, Ron and Hermione snooping around looking for clues, doing research and solving mysteries. She has said that this is the first in a series of Strike novels, and I’m excited about the prospect of more. It’s not a genre I generally read, but her style suits it so well. The book is filled with humor, much of it from the juxtaposition of the rough Strike with the world of fashion and modeling, but an equal amount from the interplay of Strike and Robin. It’s a fun book, devoid of the “big issues” of Rowling’s previous outing, The Casual Vacancy, and without the emotional baggage of Harry Potter.
It’s even easier to see after reading it why Rowling wanted to keep her identity secret. The Cuckoo’s Calling is not a big book. It’s not something that needs a lot of press, nor something that she would feel the need to push on people. I can see Rowling imagining someone picking it up on a whim in a bookstore, reading the description on the back cover, and taking it to the beach for the weekend, without ever knowing the famous woman who wrote it. I think that’s what she was aiming for with The Cuckoo’s Calling, and she’s succeeded admirably as far as the book is concerned. As for her name now being attached to it, there’s nothing that can be done to help that situation. And while this doesn’t feel like a “must read” for Rowling fans the way The Casual Vacancy was, it’s still an enjoyable read and a fun mystery to follow. I look forward to hearing more from Strike in the future, and with a new book in the series planned for release next year, I won’t have long to wait.