The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) is Robert Galbraith’s first crime thriller in what is to become a series featuring the private detective Cormoran Strike, a surname which he correctly identifies as deriving from the old English occupation of verifying measures of corn. The book was initially turned down by at least one major publisher, and though it was favourably reviewed, it didn’t have much commercial success – until it was revealed that Robert Galbraith is actually J.K. Rowling. Then is shot to the top of the charts. So does the book have intrinsic value or is its popularity just a result of her fame?
The story begins with a prologue in which a young model, Lula Landry, falls to her death from a balcony. She has a history of mental instability; the police decide it was suicide. The action then moves three months later to Robin Ellacott’s arrival at Strike’s office to take up a position as temporary secretary. Only then do we meet Strike himself – large, hairy, overweight and unfit – and homeless, having just split from his glamorous girlfriend Charlotte. Strike is an ex-military policeman who lost the lower part of one leg in Afghanistan – though he doesn’t want to talk about that. He also doesn’t want to talk about the fact that his father is an ageing but well known rock star. His detective agency isn’t doing well, and he is in debt; Robin doesn’t think she’ll stay longer than her designated week. But then he gets a client. The brother of the model who fell to her death doesn’t think it was suicide, and will pay Strike well to investigate.
The plot is relatively standard in structure, using the device of multiple possible suspects with a denouement at the end that invokes another device, but I’m not going to spoil the story by saying what it is. Strike is trained as a military policeman, and proceeds very like a civil one, reworking the police case, looking for flaws or inconsistencies in the evidence of a range of people with whom Lula came into contact in the days before her death. He seems to have a particular facility for asking incisive questions, getting people to talk and drawing logical conclusions from the evidence. Overall, I think the plot is very well handled. Strike says at one point that the killer (I’m not telling you anything, you know it’s murder) has had ‘the luck of the devil’, and this is true; there is also a degree of chance and coincidence in Strike’s investigation. But as I’ve noted before, that’s true of just about any crime story. I guessed some of what was going on, but not all of it. And though it is not a book built primarily on suspense, I really wanted to find out what would happen. Galbraith/Rowling is a great story teller.
What equally brings the story to life are the characters and the setting. The relationship between Robin and Strike is nicely drawn; cleverly, it isn’t a case of unresolved sexual tension – not in this book, anyway. Robin has a passion and an aptitude for detection – lucky she got sent as a temp to a detective agency. In the tradition of many private detectives, Strike’s private life is in disarray, but he doesn’t let this get in the way of his work. His relationship to his ex-girlfriend Charlotte is a counterpoint to his professional dealings with Robin. The setting is London 2010, in the tacky A-list celebrity world of high fashion, film, popular music and drugs. This produces such characters as Guy Somé, fashion designer, who makes expensive but bad taste T-shirts glittering with bits of glass and beads, Evan Duffield, a grungy actor and Lula’s on-again off-again boyfriend, and the rich and unpleasant women Tansy Bestigui and her sister Ursula May. The relationships between all the characters are thoughtfully drawn, usually with humanity, but sometimes with well-deserved bitchiness. I like the description of one of the shops the rich frequent, its window filled with ‘a multitudinous mess of life’s unnecessities’.
Running through the story are the themes of faithfulness and unfaithfulness, and of good and bad parenting and family life. Most of the couples in the story are unhappy, unfaithful, or actively contemplating divorce. Lula’s and Strike’s families are dysfunctional, though in different ways. Lula is adopted; is it being spoilt by her adoptive parents or her genetic inheritance from her ignorant and greedy birth mother that has damaged her? Strike’s mother died of an overdose, and he rarely sees his father. While he has learnt self-discipline in his working life, his emotional life is chaotic. Family and personal relationships are not just padding; they are important in the story.
So does this book, which would probably have sold just a few thousand copies before being shunted onto the remainder shelf deserve its best seller status? Is it only because Robert Galbraith is JK Rowling? I wouldn’t have recognised it was her work from the writing, which is highly competent, but not distinctive. Close reading has suggested that Rowling’s liking for nouns qualified with adjectives and verbs with adverbs is present here as in her earlier books, but I would never have noticed this. It’s a good book, but so are lots of others that do less well. I think the truth of the matter is that there are many books out there that never get the publicity they deserve, and languish through no fault of their own. Robert Galbraith is lucky to be JK Rowling.
Robert Galbraith’s homepage can be found here. His new book, The Silkworm, is due out in mid June. And if you really want to know more about JK Rowling, you can find her homepage here.
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