The Cuckoo’s Calling is a novel that has become famous not just for narrating a mystery, but for being a bit of a mystery in itself. Published in 2013 by supposed first-time author Robert Galbraith, the novel received much praise, and after only three months of being in print 8500 copies across all formats had been sold, it had reached number one on the UK audiobook charts, and received two offers from television production companies. Not bad for a first-time author. Only, as it was revealed by a “tweet” a few months later, Galbraith was not a first time author, but the pseudonym used by J.K. Rowling to write her first crime novel.
Rowling reluctantly admitted that she had written The Cuckoo’s Calling, stating that “the revelation when it came was a huge shock and a deep disappointment.” Rowling had deliberately wanted the book to stand on its own merits, apart from all the Harry Potter hype, and had planned on extending what she called “a wonderful period of writing and researching without pressure or expectation.”
For anyone reading The Cuckoo’s Calling after this revelation it will be hard not to make comparisons with the Harry Potter series, or The Casual Vacancy – Rowling’s only other adult novel – even if you tried: we just can’t help ourselves. Luckily for The Cuckoo’s Calling it is a novel which distinguishes itself in its own right.
The Cuckoo’s Calling begins with the death of supermodel Lula Landry, who is found having plunged from the balcony of her third story apartment on a snowy winter’s night. Lula, who is no stranger to volatile behaviour and mental health episodes, is presumed to have committed suicide, and the police conclude their investigation despite her “coked-up stick figure” neighbour’s hysterical assertions that Lula was murdered.
Enter what may just be the next new “uber-detective” in English fiction: Comoran Strike. Strike is an ex-military policeman, who has recently returned from Afghanistan after a debilitating accident. Down and out on his luck, both in his private and professional life, Strike is hired by Lula Landry’s brother, John Bristow, to find out the truth of Lula’s death. Although convinced that Bristow is deluded, Strike nevertheless starts methodically trawling through the seemingly glamorous life of Lula Landry.
Rowling has an incredible knack for setting a scene which draws the reader into whatever milieu she is describing. As we follow Strike through his encounters with the many different types of people and environments with which Lula was associated, the power of the writing ensures that we feel just as much at home at a nightclub with famous models and musicians, as we do sitting inside McDonald’s with a psych-outpatient. If any comparison is necessary, then it would be to say that this is a skill that Rowling consistently brings to all her writing – the establishment of a world (whether magical Hogworts or urban London) which the reader can slide into seamlessly, and is reluctant to leave once the novel is finished.
What I loved about The Cuckoo’s Calling is not just the intriguing, ugly – yet handsome, “bear of a man” detective Comoran Strike, or his plucky, incredibly efficient side-kick/secretary Robin, but the fact that the novel gives absolutely nothing away. Virtually everyone in the novel is a suspect, and yet – in classic Agatha Christie type detective fashion – Strike remains tight lipped about the deductions he makes as to the identity of the murderer.
It is a fact that in modern English crime fiction the private detective genre has taken a back-seat to crime solving mysteries involving a police character. The era of the Sherlock Holmes or Detective Poirot seems nostalgically old fashioned now, yet in The Cuckoo’s Calling Rowling has transported us back to that place, and I for one can’t wait to read more of it, when the second book in the Comoran Strike series The Silkworm comes out later in June this year.