The Cuckoo’s Calling
By the time I read The Cuckoo’s Calling, the cat was already well out of the bag – the pseudonymous “Robert Galbraith” was, in fact, the world’s most successful author, none other than Joanne (J.K.) Rowling. So I didn’t approach it as she intended – as the debut crime novel of an unknown ex-military policeman – but with all the Potter-shaped baggage that this revelation entailed. Fortunately, I like Potter-shaped baggage.
This mystery-thriller features Cormoran Strike (yes, really, that’s his name), a grizzled, down-on-his-luck, ex-Royal Military Police private investigator who lost a leg in Afghanistan. He’s just ended a tumultuous relationship with his fiancé when he’s hired to look into the death of supermodel Lula Landry (really, those names). Lula had fallen from her balcony in a supposed suicide but her adoptive brother is convinced she was murdered and wants Strike to prove it. And Cormoran needs the money. Badly.
Enter Robin Ellacot, a resourceful but professionally unfulfilled young woman sent by a temp agency to be Cormoran’s secretary – a booking he forgot to cancel and definitely can’t afford. Nevertheless, she soon proves her worth as they begin to explore the dark underbelly of Lula’s glamorous world and Robin discovers a hidden passion for detective work (which her cartoonishly straight-laced fiancé most certainly does not approve of).
If much of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Rowling hasn’t re-invented the wheel when it comes to crime fiction and this may grate if your cliché tolerance is low. Personally, I’m immune to a few clangers if it exceeds the demands of a classic genre in other ways, which this did. Yes, there are many, shall we charitably say “old-fashioned” tropes here (e.g. the uber-masculine, working-class PI whose personal life is a shambles), but, as she masterfully showed with Harry Potter, Rowling handles the demands of mystery writing (setup, clues, twists, payoff, etc.) wonderfully and creates characters that are likeable and fun, even if the prose itself is not going to win any literary awards.
But Robin and Cormoran are terrific. And they’re very much on equal footing, at least in narrative terms. Yes, Cormoran is the “boss” and Robin is the “näive assistant” (at least initially), but the story is told even-handedly from both their points of view, which is one significant departure from the genre’s usual conventions.
It’s hard to pin down what makes these two so likeable, but I think it has to do with their integrity – they’ve both been on the receiving end of a lot of undeserved misfortune, but they don’t wallow in it or seek pity from others (almost to a fault) – they just keep on being awesome.
I can’t help wondering exactly what Rowling set out to do with this book. Was she trying to fully embrace her male pseudonym and gently put her own spin on a genre historically dominated by men, or was she just relying on lazy conventions? I tend towards the former interpretation, which does mean I was impressed by the book a lot more knowing it was written by Rowling “getting in character” than I would have if I thought it was simply another old guy ticking off a checklist of tired tropes. (When asked why she chose to use the pseudonym and how it influences her writing, she said, “I certainly wanted to take my writing persona as far away as possible from me, so a male pseudonym seemed a good idea. It doesn’t consciously change the way I write. I think I write differently because it’s a very different genre.”)
It’s actually been quite a while since I read this book. Now that the dust has settled, it’s interesting to note that it’s the memorable and enjoyable main characters that linger with me much more than any perceived shortcomings, or even the mystery. Fortunately, it looks like Cormoran and Robin will be with us for several more installments – there are two more books already out (warning: they get grimmer and gorier), with another in the pipeline.