Book Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

Book Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)OK, we all know the drama around The Cuckoo’s Calling, right? Initially released in April of this year by an  unknown author, Robert Galbraith — purportedly a veteran of the Royal Military Police — the book was later revealed to be the work of J. K. Rowling, writing under a pseudonym. I know this has raised the hackles of all sorts of folks professing outrage — but really, why the fuss? I’m just glad to have a new J. K. Rowling book to read, and I think it’s rather marvelous for her that she was able to  have fun writing something new and different without all the intense media scrutiny that accompanies her “event” books.

With that out of the way… how was the book?

Let me start by saying that I am not in general a reader of mysteries, at least not on a regular basis. Therefore, I can’t really judge how this book fits within the norms of the genre. What I can do is assess how it works as fiction — and in my opinion, it works just fine.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a murder mystery, but actually the most interesting part for me was the introduction of a fascinating main character, private investigator Cormoran Strike. Strike is an army veteran, a skilled and respected member of the Special Investigative Branch of the British military, who has rejoined civilian life after losing a leg in Afghanistan. Strike is excellent at what he does and seems to be very well connected, yet when we meet him, he has just ended a tumultuous, dysfunctional relationship, is at the end of his rope financially, and has set up a camp bed in his office rather than admitting to his friends and relatives that he has no place to live.

Fortunately for Strike, he is approached by the brother of an old school chum and asked to take on the investigation of his sister’s death. The deceased is supermodel Lula Landry, and the police inquest proved that she committed suicide by jumping from her apartment balcony. Her brother, however, is convinced that there’s more to the story, and convinces  Strike to take the case. Despite misgivings about the validity of the brother’s claims, Strike agrees to investigate — after all, the promised fees are quite high, and he needs the cash.

As Strike digs deeper, we enter the world of fashion and super-celebrity, gossip and fame, and all sorts of tawdry secrets begin to emerge. The more Strike pokes around, the more he realizes that Lula may not have ended her own life, and he becomes committed to finding the truth about what he now is sure is a case of murder.

Unraveling the events of the day and night of Lula’s death gets quite complicated, and Strike finds sources in the unlikeliest places, from the security guard on duty to the fashion designer who saw Lula as his angel, from the limo driver to the drug-addicted boyfriend to the homeless woman Lula met in rehab. All have secrets to hide as well as information to impart, and all to seem to have something at stake. For Cormoran Strike, this case may prove to be a fresh start at a revitalized PI business — but he has to survive it first.

I found The Cuckoo’s Calling fascinating, and raced through it as quickly as I could. At 450+ pages, it did take quite a bit of time — and boy, did I resent having to put it down for little things like sleep and work. It’s compelling stuff. The plot moves quickly, with so many twists and turns that it became a bit tough to keep all the details and minor players straight. No matter — piece by piece, as Strike assembles shreds of evidence, it all comes together, and the end result is startling and yet completely thought out. The details come together nicely, and J. K. Rowling has left no loose threads or contradictions to undermine the resolution of the mystery.

As always, the author excels at creating sharply defined, memorable characters. Aside from Strike, I very much enjoyed the character of Robin, a young woman assigned as a temp to Strike’s office, who finds herself drawn into his investigation and becomes devoted to assisting Strike, personally and professionally. Many of the minor characters are quite good as well, from Lula’s Valium-addled, terminally ill adoptive mother to Strike’s entirely absent celebrity rocker of a father (whom Strike has met only twice in his life, Strike being the illegitimate offspring of a renowned super-groupie).

Perhaps my main quibble with The Cuckoo’s Calling lies with J. K. Rowling’s tendency to portray morally repugnant people as physically repulsive as well. In Harry Potter, we could not read about Severus Snape without hearing about his greasy hair, sallow skin, and hooked nose. In The Cuckoo’s Calling, there are three characters who come to mind who are just awful people — nasty, out for themselves, money-grubbing — and their descriptions make clear that we should find them disgusting:

She was wearing a pink Lycra vest top under a zip-up gray hoodie, and leggings that ended inches above her bare gray-white ankles. There were grubby flip-flops on her feet and many gold rings on her fingers; her yellow hair, with its inches of graying brown root, was pulled back into a dirty toweling scrunchie.

Within the next few paragraphs that follow, we read about her “straw-like strands of hair”, “pouchy eyes” and even the fact that when she inhales on her cigarette, the lines around her mouth resemble “a cat’s anus”. Another character is “as ugly as his pictures, bull-necked and pockmarked”, “his eyes tiny between pouches of flesh, black moles sprinkled over the swarthy skin.” In a third instance, Strike observes that an obstructionist police officer “leaned back in his chair, placing his hands behind his head, revealing dried patches of sweat on the underarms of his shirt. The sharp, sour, oniony smell of BO wafted across the desk.”

Aside from this annoyance, I found the characters, major and minor, to be well-defined and developed, and much more fleshed out as real people than the characters in The Casual Vacancy, most of whom I considered rather one-dimensional types rather than fully realized personalities. I was especially intrigued by Cormoran Strike himself. His personal story leaves a lot of room for future “investigation” — his military history, his mother’s own mysterious death, his superstar father, the crazy ex-fiancee — and I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more about all of these in future books.

And that’s the best news of all: J. K. Rowling has indicated that The Cuckoo’s Calling is likely to be the first in a series of books written under the Galbraith pseudonym and centering on Cormoran Strike. He’s a terrific character, and I would be happy to read much, much more about him.

Bottom line? I enjoyed this book tremendously. The plot is completely engrossing, Rowling is in fine command of the details, and the writing zips along. As I’ve said, I’m not much of a mystery reader and can’t compare The Cuckoo’s Calling to other books in the mystery genre. But taken on its own merit, as a novel with a well-drawn world, a great central problem to resolve, and strong characters, it’s a winner. Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Cuckoo’s Calling
Author: Robert  Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling)
Publisher: Mulholland Books/Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Contemporary fiction/Mystery
Source: Library book