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
Ellacott, intelligent and idealistic by way of contrast with Strike’s cynicism about his grubby job as a gumshoe, is not simply defined as his sounding-board. She is a lively presence, innovative and self-starting, a woman who quickly becomes frustrated with sitting behind a desk typing up reports and soon becomes an equal partner in the investigation.
Unusually, one of the most rounded characters in the novel is the victim, Lula Landry. Where lesser crime writers tend to provide a corpse at the beginning of a story simply to springboard the narrative, Lula becomes a more tangible presence the longer the novel goes on. This is in part because Cormoran Strike invests himself emotionally in the investigation, and begins to discover the real Lula behind the image adorning the ubiquitous magazine spreads and advertisement hoardings. Adopted at a young age by the wealthy Bristow family, Landry (the cuckoo of the title) grows up to become an icon, a brand name, a blank canvas upon which the world at large paints its own fantasy. Hounded by a rapacious press, paranoid when her mobile phone is hacked, and chased everywhere by the paparazzi, Lula might well be something of an avatar for the author herself. Poignantly, towards the end of the novel, Strike grasps after a quote from a poem (which Galbraith/ Rowling neglects to mention is from Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Ulysses), eventually excavating the haunting refrain, ‘I am become a name . . . ’
It all makes for a potent blend, and allows for the possibility of a hyperventilating rant at the excesses of the tabloid press, but Galbraith/Rowling delivers her story in an unfussy, graceful style that offers occasional lyrical flourishes and many nuggets of sly humour. That’s possibly why The Cuckoo’s Calling was, by one editor’s admission, rejected on the basis that it was “too quiet” in today’s marketplace; certainly it suffers from dearth of, say, fiendishly evil and improbably well-resourced serial killers who have apparently mastered the art of bi-location.
Perhaps that “too quiet” was a specific criticism in the context of the crime novel genre, however. Readers of all tastes who relish precise and measured prose, and plausible characters who pause to feel and think, rather than do and then do more at an ever-accelerating pace, will enjoy a story that thrives on neatly judged observations, psychological insights and a heartfelt respect for the traditions of the mystery genre. Taken on its own merits, and regardless of its author’s name, motives or reputation, The Cuckoo’s Calling is easily one of the most assured and fascinating debut crime novels of the year.