The Cuckoo’s Calling
Release Date: April 30, 2013
I’ll admit it – I’m one of those superficial ne’r-do-wells who would not have read The Cuckoo’s Calling if word hadn’t gotten out that author Robert Galbraith was really J.K. Rowling (of the “Harry Potter” books franchise) using a pseudonym. Due to the meteoric rise in the book’s popularity once the true identity of its author was uncovered – although it was doing rather well on its own – I don’t think I’m the only one who has to ‘fess up to this.
Still, I’m glad I got the push to read this book for whatever reason; it’s quite good. Oh, it’s a bit chatty at times, and there are no real explosions, no tense gunfights and no sudden abductions, and the whodunit aspect is not riddled with the normal amount of red herrings. But it was exactly this straight-forward, genuine, not typical treatment of the genre that caught – and held – my interest.
Take the private investigator at the heart of the book: Cormoran Strike. He’s not the expected steely eyed, square jawed, tough talking detective. According to the narrative, at 35 years of age, Strike is “massive” – weighing in around 225 pounds, with a “high, bulging forehead, broad nose and thick brows of a young Beethoven who had taken to boxing”, and “thick curly hair, springy as carpet”; “his height, his general hairiness, coupled with a gently expanding belly, suggested a grizzly bear”. Nope, no Humphrey Bogarts, Clint Eastwoods or Daniel Craigs here.
Turns out, though, that Cormoran has very famous (or perhaps better said, infamous) parents. His father is an aging rock star and his mother was a flaky super-groupie. He has nothing to do with either of them, as his father never took much notice of his illegitimate son, and his mother died of a drug overdose when Cormoran was a youngster. The boy learned quickly – even before his mother’s demise – to be self-sufficient, and to take very little for granted.
Later we discover that Strike has a prosthetic lower leg (due to his vehicle being blown up by a land mine in Afghanistan a few years earlier), that he has just been thrown out of his girlfriend’s flat – this time the separation seems permanent – and is currently sleeping on a fold up cot in his office. By mistake, the temp agency he can no longer afford still sent over a new girl, Robin, and he’s unsure of the best way of letting her go – she seems to be so earnest and she’s really efficient and tactful, to boot. But he’s only got one client and that’s not even enough to pay the rent.
Intrigued yet? You should be.
Just when it seems like Cormoran is all out of options, in walks John Bristow, a wealthy London lawyer from a moneyed British family who is looking for a private detective to revisit the supposed suicide of his adopted sister, supermodel Lula Landry. The police verdict was that Lula had jumped to her death after a fight with her boyfriend, but Bristow is convinced that Lula was murdered. Although there is scant hint of foul play in the “evidence” that Bristow has brought to the table, Cormoran figures that he might as well look into the case – what does he have to lose?
The investigation takes him across a broad spectrum of London society, from drug addicts and antagonistic police detectives, homeless teenagers to high strung fashion designers, pretty boys and girls who vogue and rave, haute sales girls, aristocratic ladies who lunch, and their security guards and drivers. Cormoran may not be comfortable with all these people, but he’s dogged and determined, and he knows how to get what he wants with patience and a bit of subterfuge. Surprisingly, Robin also shows a persistence and wry ability to slip into a role when needed to gain a confidence; their teamwork is a highlight without becoming artificially heightened into some sort of “sexual tension” side story (thank heavens!).
As Cormoran gathers evidence and interviews those who can shed light on the events of that fateful winter’s night, we glimpse not only his process, but also the personal upheavals that have shaped his life and that run side by side with this complex case. In fact, we learn how his upbringing may just have helped him become that dogged and determined investigator who takes meticulous notes and follows some kind of personal code of honor that always takes him outside to smoke, even when it’s raining. As he moves through the case, there are few red herrings, as mentioned before – every step Cormoran takes holds potential for insight, either in what is learned or in what is ruled out, professional and personal. When the ending unfolds, it may not be earth shattering but it is provocative and satisfying.
So in the end, it really doesn’t matter whether the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling is Robert Galbraith or J.K. Rowling or someone else completely different. It’s still a great, involving, well written, engaging story. I was very glad to learn that it’s the first of a planned series, because I ended up really enjoying getting to know that grizzly bear of a detective, Cormoran Strike, and his girl Friday, Robin. I’m interested in seeing where the next case takes him – but wherever it is, I have a hunch it will be a step up from that fold out cot in his office.