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

Thu, Jul 25, 2013 - Page 11

The detective novel The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith — who was unmasked a few days ago as a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame — doesn’t provide the reader with many clues to its author’s real identity. There are no wizards, witches or dementors in this novel; no magic or sorcery in its plot. Instead, the book is set in an all-Muggles London and features a disheveled, Columbo-esque detective named Cormoran Strike who takes on a case that plunges him into a posh world of supermodels, rock stars, movie producers and social-climbing wives.

Still, there are aspects of the novel that might have made some readers wonder about Galbraith’s background — at least from the jacket-flap description of him as a civilian security expert who previously worked with the Royal Military Police and its special investigations branch. After all, how many former military men are more adept writing about high fashion — describing a “clinging poison-green” Cavalli dress, vintage Ossie Clark confections and “ fabby handbags” with custom-printed “detachable silk linings” — than they are about their hero’s war experiences in Afghanistan or his training in forensics?

That said, Galbraith has written a highly entertaining book that’s way more fun and way more involving than Rowling’s sluggish 2012 novel, The Casual Vacancy. Even better, he has introduced an appealing protagonist in Strike, who’s sure to be the star of many sequels to come. The Cuckoo’s Calling is not a novel that calls upon the wonderful gifts of inventiveness that Rowling used in Harry Potter to conjure a fully imagined world with its own rituals and rules. It isn’t anywhere as deep or ambitious as those earlier books — nor is it meant to be.

Whereas the Potter novels tackled good and evil and the loss of innocence, The Cuckoo’s Calling is concerned with more mundane matters, like midlife crises and class envy and the social anthropology of contemporary London. It sends up the moneyed world of the city’s glitterati, and explicates the pressures of celebrity and fame (something both Rowling and Harry Potter know quite a bit about).

In writing the Potter saga, Rowling seemed to have inhaled a vast array of literature (everything from the ancient myths and the Bible to Shakespeare, Tolkien, the Oz books, Star Trek and Star Wars) and made it her own. In The Cuckoo’s Calling Rowling — er, Galbraith — seems to have similarly studied the detective story genre and turned its assorted conventions into something that, if not exactly original, nonetheless showcases her satiric eye (most in evidence in the Potter books in her portraits of the bureaucrats and blowhards associated with the Ministry of Magic) and her instinctive storytelling talents.

The hero of Cuckoo, Strike (a lumbering bear of a man with “the high, bulging forehead, broad nose and thick brows of a young Beethoven who had taken to boxing”) is part old-school private eye — a hard-luck tough guy with an almost existential take on life. And he’s part British-style Sherlock, using logic and deduction, not physical intimidation, to put together the puzzle pieces of his case. We learn that Strike is the illegitimate son of a famous rock musician and his groupie girlfriend, that he joined the army after his mother’s death, and that he lost “half his leg” in Afghanistan. Recently, he has hit rock bottom: His private detective business has entered a fiscal death spiral; he and his longtime girlfriend, Charlotte, have broken up; and he’s now living in his office and subsisting on noodle soup.

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.