After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.
Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.
You may think you know detectives, but you’ve never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you’ve never seen them under an investigation like this.
Introducing Cormoran Strike, this is the acclaimed first crime novel by J.K. Rowling, writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
I confess: I picked up this novel purely because I heard that J.K Rowling wrote this under a pseudonym. The plot description sounded like a typical down-on-your-luck-sleuth-investigates-a-mysterious-death and wasn’t all that intriguing on its own, but I remembered that Rowling was excellent at constructing mystery plots that handed out all the clues but still surprised you with the solution in Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire, and was interested in how she would handle a pure mystery novel.
Well, I’m glad to say that Rowling handled it very well. There is nothing especially groundbreaking about The Cuckoo’s Calling, but it is a nicely written and very well plotted mystery novel. There are plenty of red herrings scattered throughout the story, but I was very pleased that there were also enough clues for the reader to narrow it down to the correct motive and culprit. There is a plot hole regarding the actions of said culprit, but I thought it was put there for misdirection purposes, and it was a small complaint given my pleasure at finding a modern fair-play mystery novel.
The characters are also very typical of a detective story, but Rowling fleshes them out enough to be more than just plot devices. There is our hero Cormoran Strike with a prosthetic leg, trauma and romantic troubles with his girlfriend Charlotte, the victim supermodel Lula Landry, her neurotic family and assorted hanger-ons. Strike felt like the most typical of the main characters —troubled, competent but ignored by the cops, almost broke, not described as particularly attractive but still able to pick up beautiful women— his kind of sleuth is commonplace in hard-boiled detective fiction. My favorite character of the lot was Robin, Strike’s temporary secretary turned eager Girl Friday. I loved her fangirl-like enthusiasm for detective work, and suspect I would probably behave the same if ever given the chance to work alongside a detective on a case. I really appreciated that her relationship with Strike was more like that of a mentor and his helper/apprentice than a romantic one. Granted, this could change in the sequels, especially as Strike’s own destructive relationship with Charlotte pretty much crashes and burns, but I hope it stays platonic.
Rowling’s prose has definitely improved since her Harry Potter days – not that it was bad before, but it feels more polished now. Her descriptions are effective in conveying a mental picture of the settings and characters without being purple or needlessly long, and her wry humour is peppered evenly throughout it all. I particularly liked this description:
“Somé looked as if he had been carved out of ebony by a master hand that had grown bored with its own expertise, and started to veer towards the grotesque.” –pg 246
I did however feel that the book could have been about fifty pages shorter. It wasn’t that the pacing dragged – it was just a slow start. I didn’t become really engaged in the plot until almost halfway through the novel, which was also when Lula’s character really got fleshed out. We see of more of Lula’s personality as the investigation progresses, her need to find her birth family and a place to belong. Too many mystery novels treat the death of the victim as a simple plot device, and I’m glad that here by the end I sympathized with Lula and was emotionally invested in solving the mystery of her death.
Overall, The Cuckoo’s Calling is a solid first entry, and I hope to see more of Rowling’s efforts in the mystery genre in the future.
• How much I enjoyed it: 8 out of 10
• How good I thought it was: 7.5 out of 10