Early in 2013, a new murder mystery came out. Written by an author named Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling was set in England and featured an army veteran detective with a prosthetic leg (he was injured saving other soldiers in Afghanistan), a strange family and an unusual name; Cormoran Strike. A few months later, through a series of different sources, it was revealed that “Robert Galbraith” was a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling, who wanted to publish her first murder mystery without having it connected in any way to her globally-famous, history-making, best-selling series of YA fantasy best-sellers.
Sorry that whole anonymous thing didn’t work out for you, Ms. Rowling.
Even though there is nothing fantastical or magical about The Cuckoo’s Calling, I am reviewing the book here because we have reviewed the other Rowling books, and because it’s fun.
Since I read the book knowing who the writer was, it was a little too easy to see “Rowling-isms” throughout – I mean, come on; Cormoran Strike? Is that this year’s Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher? When you add the name of the victim – Lula Landry, it’s a bit hard not to roll your eyes. In fairness, though, I wonder if I would have considered those names over the top if I thought I was reading a debut mystery from a male writer.
I enjoy British mysteries, and The Cuckoo’s Calling was no exception. The two primary characters are Cormoran and Robin, his temp-secretary who, it appears, has been hired on permanently by the end of the book. Robin is lovely, a bit naïve, newly engaged, and proves to have guts, smarts and initiative to spare. Cormoran worked in the Special Investigation Branch of the army, where he was trained in investigation. On the day that Robin starts, Cormoran has broken up, perhaps for the final time, with his beautiful and temperamental fiancé, Charlotte, losing at one stroke both his happiness and a place to live. He is reduced to sleeping in his office. He is being dunned for a loan, and has no clients to speak of, until John Bristow comes to his office.
John is an attorney. His younger sister, Lula Landry, an internationally famous supermodel, apparently jumped to her death three months earlier. The ensuing investigation was a media feeding frenzy, and suicide seems conclusive, but John does not believe it, and wants Cormoran to investigate.
Cormoran navigates the dizzying and glittering world of celebrity and high fashion. Although not directly part of that world, he is not completely unfamiliar with it. Cormoran is the illegitimate son of a famous and many-times-married rock star – think Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart. Although he was never part of the fame and the excess, he has seen it all before. The more evidence he gathers, the more baffling the case becomes. Lula’s state of mind was not that of a suicidal person, and personal clues show no intention to kill herself. However, there seems to be no way someone could have gotten into and out of her penthouse suite in her highly secured building without being seen.
Cormoran also struggles with a personal mystery, and that is what to make of Charlotte’s final break-up with him. Charlotte, seen mostly in Cormoran’s flashbacks, is an enigmatic woman. She isn’t good for Cormoran, but he is drawn to her and can’t quite wrest free. This relationship is well-written and plausible.
Rowling may have chosen a pseudonym partly because this is an adult book, with adult themes and particularly rough, vulgar language. Most of the time it suits the characters and the situation, but I think Rowling did not want anyone to pick this up thinking they were getting a young adult novel.
The mystery, with its locked-door puzzle, is the best part of the book, and the second-best part is the growing partnership between Cormoran and Robin. I certainly had quibbles with the book. It’s about fifty pages longer than it needs to be. The book is stuffed to the gills with selfish, neglectful mothers. I could have done with one fewer of those. I also got tired of the use of dialect, although there were a couple of times (Robin, dodging the temp agency, because she has extended her stay with Cormoran and he is paying her directly, fakes an Australian accent, badly, over the phone) it was funny. Quibbles aside, I kept turning the pages, trying to solve the puzzle along with Robin and Cormoran.
Rowling is in a unique position to see the world of the paparazzi and the glitterati with the slightly jaundiced eye of a newcomer, and she puts those skewed observations to excellent use here.
Cormoran Strike is just another down on his luck London PI. He and his girlfriend are on the outs, and he is sleeping on a camp bed in his office, which he may not be able to keep much longer given his massive and accumulating debts. Robin is a temp, recently engaged and consequently feeling on top of the world, when she is assigned to Cormoran without his knowledge. (It turns out that the temp agency is like an online subscription: you have to cancel the service or else they’ll just re-up your subscription.) The bottom’s about to fall out when in walks John Bristow, who has a case and the money to pay for it.
The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith, is J.K. Rowling’s follow up to (intermission between?) the Harry Potter universe, and I’m glad to see that she is still writing murder mysteries. This one beat me, as did all of the Harry Potter books — which, I admit, is embarrassing given that the villain is the same figure pretty much every time. Having said that, the true value of this novel is not in the mystery but rather in the creation of Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin. Cormoran, like Watson, is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, where he lost his leg; his father was famous, but they have no relationship; he is good at his job, and people generally like him.
The novel’s content is more adult and not at all fantastic compared to the Harry Potter books. It’s also more British. Whereas Harry’s world was limited, roughly, to allegorical soccer and rugby fandom, the word ‘brilliant,’ and public transportation options, this one really flaunts that it’s set in London. It’s enthusiastic about English slang, black cabs, and bangers and mash. Though I’d describe the novel as neither steamy nor racy, there is room for hook-ups. The novel does share Harry Potter’s esteem for courage and quick thinking as well as its disgust for cowardly plots and tabloid journalism.
There’s a fun side quest to puzzle over while reading this novel, which is what to make of the publishers that rejected The Cuckoo’s Calling because they didn’t realize that Galbraith is a pseudonym for the most famous novelist on the planet. To be honest, I don’t blame these publishers. This novel, from a new author, is obviously a gamble for any publisher in today’s market. Only Rowling’s loyal fans make it a sure thing, and although she wrote YA fantasy mysteries successfully, it does not necessarily follow that her adult mysteries will be, or are, any good. The Cuckoo’s Calling, I would have felt, only shows promise. On the other hand, the promise is solidly established, especially in the friendship between the detective and his partner, which may be what sets apart the best mysteries. In fact, if I return to the series, it will be to spend time with them.
I otherwise found the novel too long, which is another way of saying that the investigation didn’t interest me. When it comes to mysteries, I’d recommend every Agatha Christie novel I’ve read and most of the Martin Cruz Smith novels I’ve read ahead of The Cuckoo’s Calling. Perhaps the best takeaway is that a genuine relationship between the detective and his (or her) partner can redeem even a dull investigation.