The Cuckoo’s Calling

CuckooCallingI really felt for J. K. Rowling when she was outed as the author of this, the first in a new crime series under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. She could have lived off the Harry Potter novels for the rest of her life, but her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, showed that she was keen to keep writing. The assumption of a pseudonym showed that she wanted some objective assessment of her work. As professional critics have made clear time and again, their response to her writing is profoundly influenced by their emotions about her wealth and fame. For the most part, whenever she publishes something new the knives are out, because there’s a quota for how much good press a person gets, and it’s a pretty small one.

And it is hard to read anything by J. K. Rowling without Harry Potter’s shadow looming over the story. My son grew up with Harry Potter; I read the first five novels out loud to him, which made me inspect Rowling’s prose far closer than was probably good for either of us. I think she is a fantastic storyteller, and The Prisoner of Azkaban should rightly take a place in the pantheon of great classic childrens’ books. After that, I felt she was sorely in need of a courageous editor to cut out the padding and the occasional infelicities in her prose. I had no interest in The Casual Vacancy, because I felt it would always be Rowling’s own reaction to having written Harry Potter – it’s no coincidence that the book is so relentlessly grim. But I was intrigued to see what she could do with crime fiction. Plotting was always one of her strongest points.

When a supermodel falls from her apartment window in a lush Mayfair residence, press and police are quick to assume that it’s suicide. Lula Landry appears to be the one of the usual celebrity crowd, spoilt and narcissistic, dating a seriously messed-up actor in an on-again off-again relationship, superficial, flighty and probably neurotic. Her brother, the lawyer John Bristow, refuses to accept the verdict, and calls in private detective, Cormoran Strike, to re-open the enquiry. Strike is an intriguing and endearing gumshoe; a wounded war veteran now running to fat, who has his own relationship issues. He is the son of a famous rock musician (who he never knew) and a super-groupie, hippy mother, who dragged him and his sister around in a peripatetic, shiftless sort of existence. Cormoran is too much of an alpha male to be damaged by all of this, but he is faintly embarrassed by it. The new case represents a vital upturn in his fortunes, as he’s on the verge of bankruptcy. And by sheer chance, fate does him a fine service by landing a temporary secretary on his doorstep who will turn out to be an unexpected asset.

Cormoran gradually finds a number of loose ends in the case that refuse to tie up. What was Lula Landry writing on a piece of blue paper in the back of her chauffered car that people seem so keen to insist was a shopping list (now missing)? What happened when she visited her sick mother that left her in a state of unusual distress? Why did one of the main witnesses insist she heard a man in Lula’s appartment when it’s obvious she could have heard nothing at all from where she was standing? And why did Lula arrange to have lunch with her gold-digging friend, Rochelle, and then only stay with her for fifteen minutes?

This was an immensely readable book, compelling, well organised and peopled with a cast of vividly-drawn, if mostly unpleasant, characters. I really enjoyed it. J. K. Rowling uses the talent she had already shown with HP for cherry-picking some of the most intriguing elements of both crime and contemporary culture and bringing them together in a satisfying way. It was a stroke of genius to give Cormoran a secretary who is secretly longing to become a detective. The relationship between Cormoran and Robin becomes one of the most gripping parts of the book, and there’s no romance in it whatsoever. No, we’re talking Watson to Sherlock Holmes, or perhaps more aptly, Della Street to Perry Mason. But perhaps most of all, we’re talking Hermione Granger to Harry Potter. Cormoran is smart, determined and limited; he needs a female foil with insight and sensitivity to effect some last minute rescues from situations he plunges into without sufficient forethought.

As a huge, hairy ex-military policeman who’s not afraid of a fight, Cormoran has shades of Jack Reacher. And Lula Landry’s relationship with Evan Duffield was strongly reminiscent of Kate Moss and the awful Pete Doherty. The resolution of the case was pure Agatha Christie. But all of this added up for me, at any rate, into a fine murder mystery. It’s not about to win a Nobel prize, but it certainly kept me entertained for a couple of days. It’s not what she does, it’s the way that she does it.



33 thoughts on “The Cuckoo’s Calling

  1. I am so very glad to read a review – a reviewer – brave enough to say what I’ve never said but often thought: that JKR is a fantastic storyteller who’s often in need of a courageous editor to cut her padding and occasional infelicities. Thank you. And thank you for this review … my father used to love Agatha Christie and so so do I, for nostalgic reasons. So p’raps I’ll give this one a try.

    • I am a huge Agatha Christie fan – I read every novel she ever wrote between the ages of 12 and 14, and I am gradually rereading them all now. I didn’t know what to expect from this novel, and I was pleasantly surprised. If you can approach it with few expectations, it might work well for you too. Do let me know, won’t you, if you get hold of a copy? I’d love to know what you think.

  2. I found this a very satisfying read. I love the central characters and the dropping of clues with a final full explanation. What is even more fun is that I think I saw a comment the other day that the second in the series is about to be published 🙂

    • Archie (always so lovely to have you visit!). I’m so glad you enjoyed this! I agree – the dropping of clues was very well done, and the misdirection, too. I’ll look forward to the second!

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with the above review (In fact, as an editor, it’s a fantasy of mine to be asked to edit an abridged version of the HP series that would allow me to go through the later volumes with a hatchet) and look forward to the next volume in the series.

    • Heh! I approached this as an amateur, so I can only imagine the pain you must feel as a professional! I love the idea of a fantasy edit. How great would that be?

  4. I am a fan of JK Rowling, but with that said, I couldn’t finish either of her post-HP books and I think it has to do with the fact that an editor needs to get the gumption to just cut big portions. The Casual Vacancy had a really interesting premise, but it just dragged (I read 259 out of 503 pages before I gave up) and I was really gripped for a while with The Cuckoo’s Calling, but it too I finally put aside and just looked up the ending. I read a huge chunk of this, too, because her writing is good and compelling. Maybe publishers expect the public to want a big book from her or even her now-revealed pseudonym Robert Galbraith?

    • My mum read The Casual Vacancy and found that it dragged somewhat (though she was determined to get to the end of it). I did find The Cuckoo’s Calling to be compelling, but I notice that so many crime novels these days are 400 pages on average. I have a love for Golden Age crime, which came in neat, 250 page packages. Not a word wasted – and there’s a lot to be said for that!

  5. I read the Casual Vacancy and didn’t love it, but nor did I hate it. It desperately needed pruning and yes, it was grim. I did buy this one too, and it sounds like I’ll enjoy it more. (I note the sequel is imminent 😉

    • I would love to know what you think of it! I found it a good, gripping read and enjoyed it. A sequel already! You have to hand it to J.K., she is incredibly speedy. That might not always be a good thing, though!

  6. you have so much great information in your blog. I struggle to get much reading time but I know I can learn plenty from you, Thank you so much and greetings… 🙂

    • I’d be very interested to know what you think of it. Harry Potter was so huge, it’s hard to get that out of the way before approaching new and different books by her. That comparison is always going to be there.

    • Lol! I caught myself using the word ‘unmitigated’ in a text message a few days ago… I suppose if I’d been smart, or at least hip, I’d have texted ‘unmitig8d’. Sigh, I will never learn!

  7. Agreed! I didn’t love The Cuckoo’s Calling in the same crazy-mad way I love the Harry Potter books, but then, I didn’t expect to. (Who could?) It was a fun mystery, and I believe she’s got more good mysteries in her, and I’m looking forward to reading them as they appear.

    • Yes, I do agree. I think she has got more good mysteries in her. Expecting any writer to produce two worldwide phenomenons is expecting too much, so I’m with you – it’s fun to see what she’ll write next.

  8. So glad you loved it. I did too, and have been surprised to encounter some negative criticism. Looking forward to the next one — ooh, out in June — might have to fight you for it!

    • Oh I’m delighted that we both loved this one! Your comment about fighting over the new one made me laugh. What’s the betting we’re so snowed under that we willingly hand it over to someone else? 😉

  9. I don’t know if Rowling needed serious editing for the Harry Potter books. It’s Fantasy and world building and I enjoyed every bit of it. The Casual Vacancy though could have been much shorter.

    • Yes, I’ve heard readers talk about world building before, usually in a context of fantasy (which is one of the few genres I don’t normally read). Is it the context which makes it acceptable, I wonder? What is an endearing convention in in one genre becomes an encumbrance in another? I don’t know, having not read much fantasy at all!

  10. Have it on my Kindle, and may one day read it, especially after this review. I was just disappointed that it started with the sexy corpse, which is a crime fiction trope that I now loathe.

    • That prologue is by far and away the worst part of the book. I found the writing very stilted and wondered what on earth I was getting myself into. But once that was past, the novel expanded out well. I’d be interested to know what you make of the storyline, and whether the model victim proved too much to take for you.

  11. I’m not a crime reader and I have no plan to read this book, but I did feel for Rowling when it came out she was Galbraith. It’s too bad it couldn’t have been kept secret for at least a couple of books. The poor woman badgered for being herself and for hiding behind a pseudonym, she just can’t win.

    • I completely agree! It is heads I win, tails you lose with the British press, and that really annoys me – they are so unfair. I wish she’d been able to write this series without the fanfare. It would have been interesting for all sorts of reasons.

  12. I think I’m one of the few people on the planet that didn’t get the Harry Potter bug so I’ve no idea whether they needed de-bagging. She got children to read and that’s a huge legacy regardless of anything else she might do.

    • Oh absolutely. But I get the feeling that J. K. herself would like to have a proper measure of her writing ability – what writer doesn’t want that? You should read one of the HPs though – just to see what all the fuss was about! 🙂

  13. Don’t get me wrong, I love Harry Potter. It’s just clear when she hits #5 that they are not edited as carefully as earlier volumes. For one, there’s the size and I think no one had the guts to rein her in, but also I think they just wanted to get the next volume out as soon as possible and didn’t want to take the time. It’s more obvious in the US editions since they stopped translating with Book 5.

      • Yes, in the early volumes it’s all sneakers and sweaters, from #5 on, it’s trainers and jumpers. I don’t see why they ever need “translating” but given that they did they should have left it. The inconsistency from the changeover drives me crazy.

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