The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith
Regardless of its author’s name, motives or reputation, JK Rowling’s work is easily one of the most assured and fascinating debut crime novels of the year
Cormoran Strike is an unfortunate name for a private eye. Fans of the crime novel will tell you that private detectives crave anonymity, blending with the shadows and attracting no attention as they go about their sordid business. A man called Cormoran Strike who wishes to pursue a career as a private eye – and particularly a former military policeman with the physique of a grizzly bear, who resembles “a young Beethoven who had taken to boxing”, as is the case with the hero of Robert Galbraith’s debut novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling – might want to consider changing his name.
Robert Galbraith, of course, was last week revealed to be the pseudonym of JK Rowling, who published The Cuckoo’s Calling in April. Rowling adopted the nom de plume, according to her press statement, in order to publish without hype or expectation, and to get feedback under a different name. The book was well received by Galbraith’s peers and in trade reviews, but the sales – fewer than 1,500 copies – were vanishingly small by comparison with the sales of her Harry Potter novels, or even last year’s foray into literary fiction, The Casual Vacancy.
Once the author’s true identity was revealed, The Cuckoo’s Calling rocketed towards the top of the bestselling charts. It’s an oddly appropriate turn of events, given the novel’s obsession with changing names and the search for a true identity. Indeed, even the author’s pseudonym plays its part: Robert Galbraith loosely translates as “famous stranger”. Cormoran was the name of a giant famous in Cornish folklore, his short stint in Cornwall being the happiest period the young Strike can remember from his peripatetic childhood.
One can only imagine that giving her private detective such a clumsily brash name is something of a red herring on Galbraith/Rowling’s part, because the rest of the novel is elegantly delivered. Three months after a young supermodel, Lula Landry, plunges to her death from a balcony in what was subsequently ruled a suicide, Strike is commissioned by Lula’s brother, John Bristow, to investigate what he believes to be Lula’s murder. Strike takes the case only to relieve the strain on his beleaguered finances, but as he digs deeper into the events surrounding Lula’s death, his conscience becomes the guiding light of the investigation.
What follows is a satisfyingly complex plot that winds through the labyrinth of London’s vulgar rich, as Strike encounters a host of models and actors, lawyers and brazen gold-diggers. JK Rowling is reported to be a fan of the golden age of British crime fiction as written by Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey and Dorothy L Sayers, and The Cuckoo’s Calling is very much a traditional mystery in that puzzle-solving vein as Strike interviews a series of suspects, piecing together elements of the jigsaw as he goes.
More enjoyable still are the characterisations, and particularly those of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, Strike’s recently engaged temporary secretary and his Watson-like foil. Strike, despite that garish name, is a no-nonsense character who combines a hulking presence with a gruff sensitivity. He is, of course, unlucky in love; worse, he left part of his leg behind during his last tour in Afghanistan, and is still struggling to come to terms with its absence.