The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (a nom-de-plume of J.K. Rowling) is a carefully crafted London-based detective novel that succeeds in building and sustaining intrigue despite a slow rhythm. Of course, the gradual acceleration makes sense for a book that is an introduction to a series; much of the opening action exists to thoroughly acquaint the reader with the cast of crime-solving characters. Rowling’s new hero is Cormoran Strike, a military veteran (Special Investigations Branch) turned meticulous detective, someone of substantial build and brains who inspires more respect than affection.
With techniques comfortingly reminiscent of Rowling’s other work (i.e. Harry Potter), the novel opens with a poem containing the title and a foreboding quotation (in Latin and English) as a premise the prologue. We witness the scene of the central crime in this prologue, and in Chapter One we meet Detective Strike through the eyes of Robin Ellacott, a young woman assigned to be his temporary secretary. Thirty-something-year-old Strike has just broken off his engagement with a beautiful and cruel woman, is buried in debt, hurting from the painful prosthetic replacement of the leg he lost in Afghanistan, and has nowhere to live. He is as gruff as Robin is polite, miserable as the newly engaged Robin is content, and desperate as Robin is hopeful. In short, Strike is in a truly pathetic state when a new client comes barging into his office and announces the case that will drive the novel’s plot and launch Robin and Strike as a team of detectives.
The mystery of a supermodel’s suspicious suicide that Strike and Robin work to solve is neither mind-bogglingly complex nor bone-chillingly creepy, but the details of the model’s world and the colorful personalities involved nonetheless render it engaging. Lula Landry, omnipresent in the novel though invisible, was a stunning mixed-race supermodel raised by an adoptive white family, and she falls to her death from the balcony of her swanky London apartment. The police rule it a suicide, but her brother and one eyewitness insist that she was pushed.
Inquiring into Lula’s death requires Strike to delve into a world of outrageous wealth and fame, and the surprising vulnerabilities they created in Lula. Strike systematically interviews her complicated family—both adoptive and biological, a hipster-musician-drug-addict-boyfriend, glamorous model friends, an over-protective designer friend/colleague, and the fame-hungry neighbors in her building. We meet everyone from her doorman, to her driver, to an American rapper with a Lula fixation—and the common theme among them all is a claim on the lucrative beauty of Lula Landry. In life, Lula struggled to distinguish those whom she could trust from those who would exploit her celebrity. In death, Strike must resume this struggle and piece together the true nature of her relationships.
Adding another layer (one that will surely play out in a future Galbraith installment) is the fact that Strike is the illegitimate, abandoned son of an infamous rock-star father. Investigating Lula’s death brings him into the folds of the fame he disdains, yet to which he has powerful ties. Rowling is a master at developing depth in her characters and in her worlds, depth that grounds a sensational storyline. In addition to compelling off-stage histories, this development comes from her persistent devotion to small, scenic descriptions of human life—regardless of what else is happening in the action of the mystery. Just as we always knew what Harry Potter ate for breakfast before saving the wizarding world, Rowling is sure to interrupt a new theory about Lula Landry’s murder with something like the following: “Robin laid out two cups, a milk jug, a sugar bowl and a plate of chocolate biscuits, none of which Strike had ever seen before, smiled in perfunctory fashion at his thanks, and made to leave.”
Culturally speaking, The Cuckoo’s Calling provided fascinating insight for this American into facets of British life. Through Strike’s wartime experience and through the presence of other soldiers, Rowling emphasizes the role of the war in Afghanistan as a unifying tie between British citizens. It had never before occurred to me to consider the implications of Afghanistan in England, and funnily enough this mostly-frivolous detective novel is what expanded my American-centric views. Rowling smoothly weaves a military theme throughout her novel, and the clearest glimpses of Cormoran Strike come when he remembers life as a soldier:
The army shaped you, almost imperceptibly, with the years; wore you into a surface conformity that made it easier to be swept along by the tidal force of military life. Strike had never become entirely submerged, and had chosen to go before that happened. Even so, he remembered the SIB with a fondness that was unaffected by the loss of half a limb.
It is also important to note that this is indubitably an adult book. Beyond the grizzly subject matter of a murder, Rowling mentions what pubs the characters frequent, what they drink, and how they behave once drunk, as well as the physical attributes of women that Strike notices (e.g. “Strike thanked her very much, and lingered just long enough to admire once more her tightly denimed backside as she straightened the duvet, before rejoining Robin and Wilson in the hall.”). Many of the characters—Strike included—have foul mouths and I was curious to learn that the c-word seems to function in England as broadly and frequently as the f-word does in America. On http://www.robert-galbraith.com, Rowling writes, “I certainly wanted to take my writing persona as far away as possible from me, so a male pseudonym seemed a good idea.” The language and objectification of women certainly contribute to the distance Rowling sought, but are not always cohesive with the rest of the writing. Likewise, the ongoing implication of sexual tension between Strike and Robin felt rather contrived.
But back to the mystery: perhaps the most frustrating—and thus the most compelling—element of Rowling’s construction is that Strike solves the murder of Lula Landry at the very beginning, when only a handful of details that can hardly be called clues have been revealed. After figuring it out based on a hunch (which he does not share with anyone), Strike does his due diligence and works through his process. As readers, we identify with Robin (who expands from secretary to detective in training), striving to keep up with Strike and discover what he knows and how he knows it. This dynamic makes for a competitive edge (or at least it did for this reader); obviously Strike has won, but the reader could still beat Robin!
Ultimately, The Cuckoo’s Calling is a thoroughly entertaining read despite some inconsistencies in style and plot, and Strike and Robin do make a formidable detective duo at solving the crimes their futures surely hold. Rowling holds her own as a detective novelist and like other celebrated authors—John Banville and Joyce Carol Oates, to name just two—has succeeded in freely switching genres via a pseudonym. Sixteen years ago (my apologies for making everyone feel old), J.K. Rowling released Harry Potter and changed the way a generation of children—and adults for that matter—felt about books. Perhaps with future Cormoran Strike books, Rowling can re-invigorate those same readers to turn off Netflix and pick up something with the potential to be even more diverting and to transport us even further: a novel.