Like most of the world, I hadn’t heard of a book called The Cuckoo’s Calling or a writer named Robert Galbraith until a story broke that Robert Galbraith was actually J.K. Rowling. I’d like to pretend that I would have read The Cuckoo’s Calling whether I’d known it was really written by Rowling or not but I doubt I ever would have heard of it to read. I’m glad that I have read it, and I look forward to The Silkworm later this month. The murder mystery/thriller genre is one that I only venture into once in a while but I usually enjoy it thoroughly and The Cuckoo’s Calling was no exception.
Cormoran Strike is going through a rough patch. His private detective business is deeply in debt and his longtime on-again, off-again relationship is almost definitely off for good. But his prospects look a little more promising when the older brother of a childhood friend shows up begging Strike to investigate the presumed suicide of his sister, who happened to have been a prominent model.
I found The Cuckoo’s Calling to be carefully crafted and satisfactory as far as the central mystery was concerned. There was a consistent balance between the case at hand and glimpses into Strike’s personal life and background. The supporting cast of characters was diverse and engaging with distinctive voices and personalities. Strike’s unexpected and surprisingly competent temporary secretary, Robin, was an effective and entertaining foil for the gruff detective. The scenes the two of them shared while working the case were easily the most enjoyable and lighthearted. Many murder mystery series run into difficulties when it comes to striking (no pun intended) the appropriate balance of solemnity and levity, ending up too far at one end of the spectrum or the other; camp or gloom. The Cuckoo’s Calling managed to walk that particular catwalk with skill and grace.
What I loved about The Cuckoo’s Calling was how completely different from the Harry Potter series it was. I understand and respect what Rowling was trying to do when she published the book under a pseudonym. The reactions and criticism of A Casual Vacancy were dominated with comparisons to Harry Potter though the only thing the two have in common is their author. Publishing The Cuckoo’s Calling as Galbraith earned the novel some well deserved praise that was unrelated to Rowling’s famous name and impressive resume.
One of my favorite things about the book is seeing just how much freedom Rowling had because she was writing under a pseudonym. With the central victim of the tale in the public eye, she was able to comment on the modern celebrity culture in a way that would be taken as the social critique intended instead of as a public figure griping or complaining. Similarly, there are moments where you can see Rowling having fun with her freedom. My favorite line came late in the novel during the climax when a character tells Strike that he should give up investigating and start writing fantasy. I just hope the casualness that sprung from Rowling writing under the presumption of anonymity doesn’t vanish in the next installment with the world in on her secret.