Fiction Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike #1), Robert Galbraith (Pseudonym of J.K. Rowling), 2013

The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike #1), Mystery/Professional Sleuth and Robert Galbraith (Pseudonym of J.K. Rowling).

In 2013, J.K. Rowling wrote a work of fiction that did not once mention magic, wands, or anyone named Harry.  Hoping to receive unbiased reviews of her work, she attempted to publish it under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith.  “I was yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre, to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback” (Flood).  However one of her solicitors revealed the secret to his wife’s friend, and shortly thereafter, the information was in the Sunday Times.

Thus marks the entry of J.K. Rowling into the world of mystery fiction.  Overall, The Cuckoo’s Calling is an entertaining if not groundbreaking read, taking many successful aspects of her earlier writing into the genre.  However, not everything “works” in this novel.  I’ll get to that later.

In the Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling establishes herself as a master of setting and character tells that perfectly build both world and people in the mind of this reader.  “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much” (Rowling, 1).  Nothing has changed in The Cuckoo’s Calling.  Below she describes the moments before the two main characters, Robin Ellacot and Cormoran Strike, meet for the first time.  This is from Robin’s point of view, and it illustrates the intersection of place and character, one informing the other for the benefit of the reader.

She found it almost accidentally, following a narrow alleyway called Denmark Place out into a short street full of colorful shop fronts: windows full of guitars, keyboards, and every kind of musical ephemera.  Red and white barricades surrounded another open hole in the road, and workmen in fluorescent jackets greeted her with early-morning wolf-whistles, which Robin pretended not to hear (Galbraith 12 – 13).

With Rowling’s colorful description, I can visualize the setting.  I also know quite a bit about Robin.  She’s a serious woman, not given to quick flirtations, but also not prone to fits of indignant anger at the sexism exhibited by the workers.  She is level-headed.  Later, we learn she is also smart, resourceful, attractive, and has grit.  By far, she is my favorite character even though Cormoran has top bill.

One can tell that Rowling worked hard to make Cormoran interesting as a maimed war vet with a famous rocker father, but he really just comes across as bad-tempered.  Who can blame the guy?  He’s in constant pain, has just broken up with his stunning girlfriend, drinks to excess, and business isn’t great.   Honestly, he’s a bit of a downer to spend time with.  We all have our bad days, but I rarely want to read about them.

My favorite parts of the book are when the two main characters — Cormoran and Robin — are together. There is sexual tension, professional longing, and witty banter.  But given this book is first in a series, it establishes their relationship, and it would not have been realistic for her to accompany the detective on all his interviews.  So, their interactions are limited and I found myself hoping all the parts in between would progress faster than they did.

Sometimes I felt similarly about the Harry Potter books too.  However, The Cuckoo’s Calling has more heritage from hard-boiled detective fiction then young adult fantasy even though this novel is not a revolution in professional sleuth mysteries.  Rather, The Cuckoo’s Calling is a natural extension of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.  For example, in the older work, Effie Perrine is Sam Spade’s indispensable Girl Friday who both efficiently follows his orders and occasionally plays detective, feeding him valuable information about Iva Archer’s whereabouts the night her husband Miles Archer was killed.  Here is an exchange between Effie and Sam:

“You’re an angel,” he said tenderly through smoke, “a nice rattle-brained little angel.”

She smiled a bit wryly.  “Oh, am I?  Suppose I told you that your Iva hadn’t been home many minutes when I arrived to break the news at three o’clock this morning?”

“Are you telling me?” he asked.  His eyes had become alert though his mouth continued to smile.

“She kept me waiting at the door while she undressed or finished undressing. I saw her clothes where she had dumped them on a chair. Her hat and coat were underneath.  Her singlette, on top, was still warm.  She said she had been asleep, but she hadn’t.  She had wrinkled up the bed, but the wrinkles weren’t mashed down.”

Spade took the girl’s hand and patted it.  “You’re a detective, darling, but” – he shook his head – “she didn’t kill him” (Hammett 28).

It is unknown whether Effie wants to be a detective in her own right but she can do the work without the title.  Rowling has also included her own version of Effie in The Cuckoo’s Calling in the form of Robin.  Sent by a temporary agency to work as a secretary for the week, she experiences a frisson of excitement when she approaches the door to Strike’s offices:

The name on the paper beside the outside buzzer was engraved on the glass panel: C. B. Strike, and underneath it, the words Private Detective.

Robin stood quite still, with her mouth slightly open, experiencing a moment of wonder that nobody who knew her could have understood.  She had never confided in a solitary human being (even Matthew) her lifelong secret, childish ambition (Galbraith 13- 14).

If Robin is Effie, there is a lot of Sam in Cormoran.  Neither male character is entirely likeable, but they have an unerring sense of right and wrong.  Cormoran won’t make a move on Robin because she’s engaged.  Although Sam’s romantic entanglements aren’t as noble, he balks at “playing the sap” for Brigid O’Shaughnessy even if Miles Archer was a “son of a bitch” (Hammett 213) explaining, “’When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it’” (Hammett 213).  Cormoran also draws his ethical boundaries at becoming entangled with Robin.

She was the only human with whom he was in regular contact, and he did not underestimate his current susceptibility; he had also gathered, from certain evasions and hesitations, that her fiancé disliked the fact that she had left the temping agency for this ad hoc agreement. It was safest all round not to let the burgeoning friendship become too warm; best not to admire openly the sight of her figure draped in jersey (Galbraith 183).

And just like Sam and Effie, Cormoran and Robin maintain a strictly professional relationship throughout the story, one in which the bad guy (or gal) is caught in the end.  Again, this is expected from the genre and Rowling does not disappoint.  The reader is provided a solution, albeit one that seems difficult to deduce from available clues, and that is disappointing.

Nevertheless, I would read the next in this series if only to see how the relationship between Cormoran and Robin develops.  The Cuckoo’s Calling is for fans of hard-boiled detective fiction who like the formula, updated for a modern age.


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