Book review: ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’

New York TimesJuly 27, 2013 

  • Fiction The Cuckoo’s Calling Robert Galbraith

    Mulholland Books, 455 pages

The detective novel “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith – who was unmasked recently as a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame – doesn’t provide many clues to the author’s real identity. No wizards, witches or magic appear in its plot.

Instead, the book features a disheveled, Columbo-esque detective named Cormoran Strike, who takes on a case that plunges him into a posh world of supermodels, rock stars, movie producers and social-climbing wives.

Still, there are aspects of the novel that might have made some readers wonder about Galbraith, whose jacket-flap describes him as civilian security expert previously employed by the Royal Military Police. After all, how many former military men are adept enough at writing about fashion to describe a “clinging poison-green” Cavalli dress and “ fabby handbags”?

That said, the author has written a highly entertaining book that’s way more fun and way more involving than Rowling’s 2012 novel, “The Casual Vacancy,” and has an appealing protagonist in Strike, who’s sure to be the star of many sequels to come.

Where the Potter novels tackled big themes of mortality and free will, “The Cuckoo’s Calling” is concerned with decidedly more mundane matters, such as midlife crises and the social anthropology of contemporary London. It sends up the moneyed world of the city’s glitterati, and explicates the pressures of celebrity and fame (something both Rowling and Harry Potter know quite a bit about).

In writing the Potter saga, Rowling seemed to have inhaled a vast array of literature – from the ancient myths and the Bible to “Star Wars.” “The Cuckoo’s Calling” similarly draws from the detective-story genre, combining conventions with the satiric eye familiar from portraits of the bureaucrats and blowhards associated with the Ministry of Magic.

The protagonist, Strike, is a lumbering bear of a man with “the high, bulging forehead, broad nose and thick brows of a young Beethoven who had taken to boxing.” He’s part old-school private eye and part British-style Sherlock.

We learn that Strike is the illegitimate son of a famous rock musician and his groupie girlfriend, that he joined the army after his mother’s death, and that he lost “half his leg” in Afghanistan. But recently, he hit rock bottom. His private detective business has entered a fiscal death spiral, he’s had a recent breakup with his longtime girlfriend, and he is living in his office on a camp bed.

Two things immediately happen to change Strike’s luck and kick-start this novel. A smart, pretty office temp named Robin Ellacott shows up at his office to fill in as his assistant, and a seemingly cultivated but nervous new client by the name of John Bristow walks in the door and asks for help. Bristow wants proof that the death of his adopted sister, the famous model Lula Landry, known as Cuckoo, was not a suicide but a murder.

In her Potter novels, Rowling learned to simultaneously push her story forward while filling in missing details of her characters’ pasts. Here, Galbraith manages something similar. As Strike investigates how Lula came to fall to her death from the balcony of her fancy “five-star” Mayfair apartment building, we gradually learn a lot about both Lula’s and Strike’s back stories and how their lives actually dovetail.

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” is flawed by a “Psycho”-like explanatory ending, where Strike explains how he put all the evidence together and identified Lula’s killer, but most of its narrative moves forward with propulsive suspense.

More important, Strike and his assistant Robin – playing Nora to his Nick, Salander to his Blomkvist – have become a team whose further adventures the reader cannot help eagerly awaiting.

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