For the past week, the literary world has been possessed by the news that J.K. Rowling secretly published a book earlier this year, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Choosing to do so in order to escape the inevitable, and often biased, scrutiny that accompanies her publications, The Cuckoo’s Calling ends a year of debate regarding Rowling’s hint that she might dip into the world of crime fiction. When the news broke, I had no desperate desire to rush out and buy the book. While I am a big fan of crime fiction, and a devotee of the Harry Potter series, I figured that The Cuckoo’s Calling was something I would get around to reading eventually (most likely once in paperback). But one bookshop trip later and in need of a break from the massive tome that is currently weighing me down (Dostoevsky’s Demons – 700 pages of intense concentration), I found myself picking up J.K. Rowling’s latest surprise. This was Friday afternoon and the book was finished one day later. The reviews have not been wrong.
The Cuckoo’s Calling introduces us to private detective and war veteran, Cormoran Strike. After losing a leg in Afghanistan, Strike has chosen to employ his considerable investigative and deductive talents by running his own agency. But under serious financial strain, he is facing impending failure. As the book opens, however, Cormoran is offered a potential lifeline in the form of a new and wealthy client. This client is John Bristow, brother of the supermodel Lula Landry who fell to her death from her apartment balcony. Disputing the police decision to write the tragedy off as suicide, Bristow employs Strike to investigate the case as murder. Strike works to unravel the mystery surrounding Lula’s death, pursuing witnesses and suspects across London, alongside his newly-employed secretary, Robin Ellacott. The investigation throws them into the world of drug dealers, fashion designers, and wealth, where affairs and manipulation abound. As Strike gets closer to the truth, it becomes clear that both self-interest and cruelty provide the foundations for this tragic crime.
I was truly unsure what to expect when I picked up The Cuckoo’s Calling. Not yet having made it to The Casual Vacancy, I had no familiarity with Rowling’s work outside of Harry Potter. The strange disappointment that seemed to surround The Casual Vacancy had left me determined to preserve my impression of Rowling’s skill by generally staying away from her post-Potter novels. Whether or not The Casual Vacancy deserved the critiques it received, The Cuckoo’s Calling lays all concerns to rest. It is a novel that shows J.K. Rowling at her best, a perfect example of her position as one of the greatest contemporary storytellers.
“It was nearly eight before he returned to the office. This was the hour when he found London most loveable; the working day over, her pub windows were warm and jewel-like, her streets thrummed with life, and the indefatigable permanence of her aged buildings, softened by the street lights, became strangely reassuring. We have seen plenty like you, they seemed to murmur soothingly, as he limped along Oxford Street carrying a boxed-up camp bed. Seven and a half million hearts were beating in close proximity in this heaving old city, and many, after all, would be aching far worse than his. Walking wearily past closing shops, while the heavens turned indigo above him, Strike found solace in vastness and anonymity.”
Whatever your opinion on J.K. Rowling as an author, she is undeniably masterful in her attention to plot and pacing. The Harry Potter series oozes mystery, with clues woven throughout the seven books. That Rowling delights in teasing the reader with seemingly inconsequential details and hints makes the brilliance of The Cuckoo’s Calling unsurprising. It is a fantastically crafted mystery, absolutely reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s works in structure and development. Rowling’s turn-of-phrase retains the breeziness that makes her novels so effortlessly readable, but her compelling descriptions offer consistently tangible detail.
The Cuckoo’s Calling also continues Rowling’s trend of creating refreshingly flawed characters. The novel abounds with a remarkable array of personalities, all of whom are comprehensively fleshed-out. In this way, Rowling avoids the superficiality that plagues so many books of the genre – where character development is completely subordinated to plot. Achieving a balance between the two is unbelievably difficult, but Rowling manages it with ease. While I did feel that a couple of characters became a little too caricatured, the numerous social and cultural representations that the novel brings together make it somewhat understandable.
Aside from the brilliant plot and the preponderance of multidimensional (and thoroughly human) characters, The Cuckoo’s Calling is driven by its sleuth, Cormoran Strike. For me, Strike stands apart from other detectives by bringing together two characteristics that are virtually impossible to find, existing together, in the genre: (1) He possesses deductive abilities that are remarkable but by no means surpassing human understanding; and, (2) He is flawed, but in a believable and likeable way. While I love the crime genre, it is rarely the case that I find the central character appealing – their abilities are either inhuman, detaching the whole plot from reality (as per Sherlock Holmes), or they possess exaggerated flaws that render the reader unable to develop a real relationship with the character (as per Hercule Poirot). These book remain enjoyable for their plots, but lack that extra level of investment that grips the reader from start to finish.
Strike is a superbly crafted character, serving as further proof of Rowling’s skill in developing relatable and believable personalities. His military past and current status as something of a down-and-out are expected to garner no sympathy, yet add some complexity to his motivations. That he is skilled is undeniable, yet the reader is never left feeling cheated with regards to the effort involved in his deductions or the methods employed.
“The friction between the end of Strike’s amputated leg and the prosthesis was becoming more painful with every step as he headed towards Kensington Gore. Sweating a little in his heavy overcoat, while a weak sun made the park shimmer in the distance, Strike asked himself whether the strange suspicion that had him in its grip was anything more than a shadow moving in the depths of a muddy pool: a trick of the light, an illusory effect of the wind-ruffled surface. Had these minute flurries of black silt been flicked up by a slimy tail, or were they nothing but meaningless gusts of algae-fed gas? Could there be something lurking, disguised, buried in the mud, for which other nets had trawled in vain?”
The Cuckoo’s Calling is a resounding success for J.K. Rowling. I fully believe that the crime genre is one of the hardest for an author to explore with true skill. But Rowling is clearly more than up to the task. Her debut crime novel is a testament to her abilities and certainly lays any doubts regarding her post-Potter success to rest. Here’s hoping for many more to come.