The Cuckoo’s Calling
By J.K. Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith
Mulholland Books / Little Brown; 455 pages; $26.
By Melinda Miller
News Staff Reviewer
Back in the fall of 2012, J.K. Rowling was quoted in a New Yorker profile that she had considered publishing her first non-Harry Potter, adult book anonymously, until she decided, “Get over yourself, just do it.”
And so “The Casual Vacancy” was released in September 2012 with much fanfare and to mixed reviews. It became one of the best-selling novels of the year.
Writer Ian Parker also reported in the same paragraph of his New York piece that Rowling was working on two new children’s books and another adult novel, which, she told him, “is pretty well plotted” although not nearly finished. And so, there were some clues.
“The Cuckoo’s Calling,” a traditional detective story by Robert Galbraith, was released in Great Britain in April. Reviewers and readers posting online generally liked the book, though some found it overlong. Its imperfect hero, Cormoran Strike, is cleverly drawn and the murder investigation at its center is well-structured – not littered with the kind of red herrings that lesser writers pile onto mysteries bred in tight circles of family and friends.
As the reading world has known since July, “Cuckoo’s Calling” was not a first-time author’s solid debut. Galbraith is Rowling, who says she did enjoy the brief spell of anonymity she had before her cover was blown by an acquaintance of someone on her legal team.
Since then, “Cuckoo’s Calling” has taken a firm seat on the best-seller lists and a prime spot in the front of bookstores everywhere. It also experienced the rear-view analysis so common to political pundits and pro sports announcers – “she could have this” or “she should have that.”
With a “we told you so, sort of” attitude, British newspapers resurrected rumors they’d printed a year or two earlier that Rowling was at work on a crime novel. Critics confessed that it would be difficult to review the book without falling under the spell of Potter-painted expectations. The book was clearly written by a woman, some said. Others knew all along it could not have been a “first novel.”
Readers, on the other hand, decided to embrace the book as a new direction from a trusted writer and seem pretty happy with it. So is Rowling. On her Robert Galbraith website, she says she plans to continue the detective series and has already finished her second Cormoran Strike novel.
For fans of decent mysteries that have characters with room to grow on you, that is good news. Strike is a fellow worth exploring. His background makes for unusual interactions with witnesses and suspects alike, as they do, or do not, learn that his absent father is a rock star and that one of his legs is MIA from a tour in Afghanistan. Strike tries to keep both those tidbits to himself, and because he is a big guy with blunt manners, he generally gets away with it.
Still, being the offspring of a celebrity does open doors when the death you are investigating is that of an ultra-successful supermodel. Lula Landry, who jumps or was pushed from a high window on a cold night, was the adopted mixed-race daughter of an upper-class family, and her shocking demise attracted media attention of Princess Di-like dimensions.
Rowling takes a fairly direct path from her terrific opening sentence – “The buzz in the street was like the humming of flies” – when Landry’s shattered body is still lying undercover on a snowy sidewalk. The down-on-his-luck Strike takes on the job of proving she wasn’t a suicide and pushes his way through her glamorous world, with its ugly sideshows and hangers-on, to reach a solid and believable conclusion. Aiding him is a dauntless temp named Robin, whose efficiency, tact and temperament make her an admirable descendant of Della Street and Miss Lemon.
What gives the book its strength also weakens it when taken too far.
Rowling writes with vivid detail about the manners, the clothes, the hubris and the secrets of her many characters, building an emotional stage on which to play out Lula’s short, all too sad life.
Here’s Lula’s snooty uncle: “His smile was perhaps the most perfect example of an insincere social grimace that Strike had ever witnessed: a mere baring of even white teeth.”
There is much detail, though, that is not vivid. Conversations go on too long. Suspicions are allowed to fester.
Strike, forced to sleep in his office after breaking up with his girlfriend, spends too many paragraphs worrying about the camp cot and kit bag being discovered by his clients. However, since we know this author can walk around with an entire series of books in her head, it’s hard to know what to skip and what to file away for later.
Meanwhile, Rowling fully exercises her gift for dialogue, using distinct vocabularies to expose personalities along with her clues. With some of these personalities rough around the edges, that means making full use of expletives not tossed about in the halls of Hogwarts.
On the streets of London, however, Galbraith/Rowling feels quite at home. You can imagine them, and Strike and Robin, staying there for quite some time.
Melinda Miller is a regular News reviewer of mystery and crime novels.