The Cuckoo’s Calling: Rowling makes a break without forgetting her roots

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fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Cuckoo's Calling by Robert GalbraithThe Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

Early in 2013, a new murder mystery came out. Written by an author named Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling was set in England and featured an army veteran detective with a prosthetic leg (he was injured saving other soldiers in Afghanistan), a strange family and an unusual name; Cormoran Strike. A few months later, through a series of different sources, it was revealed that “Robert Galbraith” was a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling, who wanted to publish her first murder mystery without having it connected in any way to her globally-famous, history-making, best-selling series of YA fantasy best-sellers.

Sorry that whole anonymous thing didn’t work out for you, Ms. Rowling.

Even though there is nothing fantastical or magical about The Cuckoo’s Calling, I am reviewing the book here because we have reviewed the other Rowling books, and because it’s fun.

Since I read the book knowing who the writer was, it was a little too easy to see “Rowling-isms” throughout – I mean, come on; Cormoran Strike? Is that this year’s Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher? When you add the name of the victim – Lula Landry, it’s a bit hard not to roll your eyes. In fairness, though, I wonder if I would have considered those names over the top if I thought I was reading a debut mystery from a male writer.

I enjoy British mysteries, and The Cuckoo’s Calling was no exception. The two primary characters are Cormoran and Robin, his temp-secretary who, it appears, has been hired on permanently by the end of the book. Robin is lovely, a bit naïve, newly engaged, and proves to have guts, smarts and initiative to spare. Cormoran worked in the Special Investigation Branch of the army, where he was trained in investigation. On the day that Robin starts, Cormoran has broken up, perhaps for the final time, with his beautiful and temperamental fiancé, Charlotte, losing at one stroke both his happiness and a place to live. He is reduced to sleeping in his office. He is being dunned for a loan, and has no clients to speak of, until John Bristow comes to his office.

John is an attorney. His younger sister, Lula Landry, an internationally famous supermodel, apparently jumped to her death three months earlier. The ensuing investigation was a media feeding frenzy, and suicide seems conclusive, but John does not believe it, and wants Cormoran to investigate.

Cormoran navigates the dizzying and glittering world of celebrity and high fashion. Although not directly part of that world, he is not completely unfamiliar with it. Cormoran is the illegitimate son of a famous and many-times-married rock star – think Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart. Although he was never part of the fame and the excess, he has seen it all before. The more evidence he gathers, the more baffling the case becomes. Lula’s state of mind was not that of a suicidal person, and personal clues show no intention to kill herself. However, there seems to be no way someone could have gotten into and out of her penthouse suite in her highly secured building without being seen.

Cormoran also struggles with a personal mystery, and that is what to make of Charlotte’s final break-up with him. Charlotte, seen mostly in Cormoran’s flashbacks, is an enigmatic woman. She isn’t good for Cormoran, but he is drawn to her and can’t quite wrest free. This relationship is well-written and plausible.

Rowling may have chosen a pseudonym partly because this is an adult book, with adult themes and particularly rough, vulgar language. Most of the time it suits the characters and the situation, but I think Rowling did not want anyone to pick this up thinking they were getting a young adult novel.

The mystery, with its locked-door puzzle, is the best part of the book, and the second-best part is the growing partnership between Cormoran and Robin. I certainly had quibbles with the book. It’s about fifty pages longer than it needs to be. The book is stuffed to the gills with selfish, neglectful mothers. I could have done with one fewer of those. I also got tired of the use of dialect, although there were a couple of times (Robin, dodging the temp agency, because she has extended her stay with Cormoran and he is paying her directly, fakes an Australian accent, badly, over the phone) it was funny. Quibbles aside, I kept turning the pages, trying to solve the puzzle along with Robin and Cormoran.

Rowling is in a unique position to see the world of the paparazzi and the glitterati with the slightly jaundiced eye of a newcomer, and she puts those skewed observations to excellent use here.

When the next book comes out, I predict the cover will read “by J.K. Rowling Writing as Robert Galbraith.” I don’t care, I’ll buy it anyway. I would love to read a second Strike mystery.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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One comment

  1. There haven’t been many reviews for this book but unlike The Casual Vacancy–of which there are many reviews–most of the reviews have been good. In that regards, I’m happy for her. Her publishing a book is decidedly unlike anyone else.

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