Thu, Jul 25, 2013 - Page 11 News List

Book review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

J.K. Rowling of ‘Harry Potter’ fame tries her hand at detective fiction, and with considerable success

By Michiko Kakutani  /  NY Times News Service

Two things immediately happen to change Strike’s luck and kick-start this novel: A smart, pretty office temp named Robin Ellacott shows up at his office to fill in as his assistant; and a seemingly cultivated but nervous new client by the name of John Bristow walks in the door and asks for help. Bristow’s case: Prove that the death of his adopted sister, the famous model Lula Landry, known as Cuckoo, was not a suicide but a murder.

In her Potter novels, Rowling learned how to simultaneously push her story forward while filling in missing details of her characters’ pasts and dropping a lot of clues (and red herrings) along the way. And here, Robert Galbraith manages something similar (and without using magical memory devices like the Pensieve). In fact, as Strike investigates how Lula came to fall to her death from the balcony of her fancy “five-star” Mayfair apartment building, we gradually come to learn a lot more about both Lula’s and Strike’s back stories and how their lives actually dovetail.

Lula initially seems like a sort of cartoon version of Kate Moss: a world famous, club-hopping, paparazzi-pursued model, who has served as a muse to high-profile, hipster designers and has been immortalized in pop songs. She has even been given a drug-using, rocker boyfriend named Evan Duffield, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Moss’ onetime beau Pete Doherty.

Bit by bit, Strike reconstructs what Lula was doing in the last two days of her life, and as he does, a fuller portrait of her emerges. Along the way, witnesses and the chief suspects in her murder also evolve from familiar stock types — plucked from the tabloids, television soaps and Evelyn Waugh novels — into more fully formed characters, by turns tetchy, willful, manipulative, mercenary and mendacious.

There’s her mysterious pal from rehab, Rochelle, and her designer friend Guy Some, who featured her as a dark angel in a famous ad for his company, along with her model friend Ciara Porter. There’s her nasty and racist Uncle Tony; her ailing and drug-addled adoptive mother, Lady Yvette; and her money-grubbing birth mother, Marlene Higson. Then there are her neighbors: a famous American rapper by the name of Deeby Macc, an odious movie producer named Freddie Bestigui and his now-estranged wife, Tansy, who claims to have seen Lula’s fatal plunge.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is flawed by a Psycho-like explanatory ending — in which Strike explains how he put all the evidence together and identified Lula’s killer — but most of its narrative moves forward with propulsive suspense. More important, Strike and his now-permanent assistant, Robin (playing Nora to his Nick, Salander to his Blomkvist), have become a team — a team whose further adventures the reader cannot help eagerly awaiting.

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