I’ll admit – I would not have read this book if it were not for the fact that it had been written by J.K. Rowling (under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith). I don’t customarily peruse detective fiction, either; I am somewhat unfamiliar with its tropes and intertextual nuances. Nevertheless, I found The Cuckoo’s Calling to be a very enjoyable read; not so much because of its deftly constructed murder mystery, but more because Rowling – Galbraith – has in this book introduced a most compelling lead in the character of Cormoran Strike.
Strike strikes one at first as coming out of the hard-bitten noir trope of the lonesome, cynical detective, but he is far more fleshed out as a character than one might expect. Writers of hard-boiled protagonists, in my limited experience, tend to enshroud their characters in an air of obdurate inscrutability – with the tiniest chinks in their armor only occasionally doled out as rewards to the reader for sticking with the plot so far. Strike, on the other hand, tries to present that impression to the world as part of his professional facade, but the reader gets a much closer more naturalistic, and more sustained glimpse into his psyche, motivations and history. His cynicism has a convincing provenance – borne out of his painstakingly constructed past. He is no dark, brooding loner gripped in existential angst, but a very sympathetic and in some sense openly vulnerable character, but is nevertheless possessed of that kind of fierce, inquisitive competence that is the fire and spice of the mystery novel.
It’s entertaining watching the interplay between the two leads – Strike and his temp, Robin, newly arrived in London and enamored of the mystique of detective work but instinctively mistrustful of Strike at first. Seeing that relationship develop is a joy, especially since Rowling deliberately addresses and rejects the possibility of that relationship being anything but a platonic, hero-sidekick-esque one.
One thing about this work that compares favorably to that of the Harry Potter books is the writing. Rowling has a very distinctive prose style: one that is urbane and worldly-wise, but nevertheless compulsively readable and even quite beautiful in places. The narrative tone is one that is somewhat satirical, somewhat distantly cynical, especially towards its secondary characters – the socialites, bankers, lawyers and fashion designers that are associated with the case: the murder of a famous model, defenestrated from the balcony of her home. The novel is a very transparent commentary on wealth and celebrity and the invidious effects that it has on people, both as bearers and observers of money and fame. Through Strike’s eyes, we apprehend the emptiness of the moneyed lifestyle and the sheer unhappiness its pursuers (both successful and not) tend to get themselves into. It’s not a particularly novel premise, of course, but it gets a pleasing and salutary treatment in the book, and is not at all a disagreeable meta-theme upon which to hang the trappings of a murder mystery. Such novels, after all, derive their premise from the darker aspects of human nature.
If the book has any one flaw, however, it is that it sometimes does over-analyse its characters. Rowling has a tendency to attribute every gesture, every nuance of every character with a subtext that speaks to their baser natures. Everyone in the novel has their fears, insecurities and shame laid out before Strike’s interrogative eye. This fetishization of nuance, as it were, is so pervasive that it sometimes goes overboard. Seeing, through Strike’s eyes, as it were, every secondary character twitched like marionettes by the puppet strings of their baser natures can get somewhat one-note and tiring sometimes.
This book was good enough, however, that I went out and bought The Silkworm, the second book in what Rowling plans to be an indefinitely extended series about Cormoran Strike, on Amazon. Whatever its minor shortcomings, The Cuckoo’s Calling is testament to Rowling’s versatility as a writer and of her ability to replicate her literary success outside of children’s fiction.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 blue letters
+ Great main characters
+ Great writing
+ Arresting commentary on celebrity and wealth
– Nobody other than Strike and Robin are nice people
– Strike’s ability to characterize a person through the tiniest gesture approaches Sherlock-levels of ludicrousness sometimes