Book Review: Robert Galbraith’s “The Cuckoo’s Calling”

They wrote that she was unbalanced, unstable, unsuited to the superstardom her wildness and her beauty had snared; that she had moved among an immoral moneyed class that had corrupted her; that the decadence of her new life had unhinged an already fragile personality. She became a morality tale stiff with Schadenfreude, and so many columnists made allusion to Icarus that Private Eye ran a special column.

And then, at last, the frenzy wore itself into staleness, and even the journalist had nothing left to say, but that too much had been said already.

(Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling)[1]

In a mystery solution worthy of the new literary detective Cormoran Strike, J.K. Rowling was revealed to be the author of the new book The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first of a new series written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith (originally published 18 April 2013). The news was first announced on Saturday, 13 July 2013, after which many J.K. Rowling fans hurried to obtain a copy, resulting in the book becoming temporarily out of stock, followed by a reprint of 300,000 copies. The week after the news was revealed was a busy one for the fandom.[2] The book was selling well even before the revelation. In the FAQ section on the new Robert Galbraith website, J.K. Rowling writes,

Although Robert had only been in print for three months, he had sold 8500 copies across all formats (hardback, ebook, library, and audiobook), reached number one on the UK audiobook charts and received two offers from television production companies. Robert’s success during this period compared favorably with J.K. Rowling’s success during the equivalent period of her published career and I was very proud of him![3]

There was even a wonderful review from before the reveal. It traveled around the internet, because reviewer Karen wrote, in part, “This book is so well written that I suspect that some years down the road we will hear the author’s name is a pseudonym of some famous writer.”[4] When I first heard the news, I felt shocked and happy, and immediately decided to read the book. I finished reading it on 17 July and decided to write a review, but it’s taken me a while to actually finish writing it.

Much like Rowling’s previous writing, the story begins with a death. Lula Landy, a famous model, falls to her death from a balcony. There is much media coverage about the incident, and it’s eventually concluded that she killed herself. Three months after her death, Lula’s brother John Bristow hires private investigator Cormoran Strike to figure out who killed her. Strike is a war veteran who’s going through a really difficult time; he’s currently living in his office after a breakup. He takes the case mostly because he needs the money, but finds out that there is more to the situation than he’d first expected. Robin Ellacott is Strike’s new assistant, who initially arrives at his office because she’s been given an assignment by the temp agency Temporary Solutions. Though she was expecting the job to last only one week (and looking for a more permanent position elsewhere), she’s very excited when finds out she’ll be working with a private investigator. She decides to stay at the job and help with the investigation.

The story is written in third person, and mostly follows Cormoran Strike, though there are some sections from Robin’s perspective. Strike is really fascinating, as we find out about his past and his current troubles. He’s trying to handle his horrible situation with some degree of self-respect and determination. As he is working on solving the case, we also see him struggle with his past and his injuries. I would have liked to get to know Robin a little better; the “sidekick” is often just as interesting as the main detective. The assistant is often a person who has some insight into the investigator’s personality and makes important contributions to the case. When I saw that the beginning of Part One was written from Robin’s point of view, and then switched over to Strike’s point of view, I was excited and hoped that the narrative would perhaps be split evenly between them. I was disappointed to find that we spend much less time with Robin, and I hope we get to know her better in future installments. As for their relationship, I was very glad that Rowling chose to create a platonic work relationship, developing into a friendship. I hope that the friendship continues in future installments, and does not develop into a romance.

There is a sizable cast of characters, many of whom knew Lula Landry in some way. As Strike speaks to many different characters, trying to figure out what happened during her last day on Earth, we find out a little bit about each of them, their personalities, and their relationship to Lula Landry. Because Rowling doesn’t have a magical world (with lots of magical events and objects) within which to hide her clues, the hints are instead hidden within the interviews with these characters. As Strike speaks to each of them, we wonder about their motivations and the veracity of their stories. We gain knowledge about Lula Landry little by little, as each person adds some new information. Because these characters are people being interviewed in relation to this particular investigation, the reader doesn’t get to know them as well as we would recurring characters in a series or main protagonists. Some are more interesting than others, but their stories add to each other in fascinating ways that left me guessing.

The book has a prologue, five numbered parts (further divided into chapters) and an epilogue titled “Ten Days Later”. As usual with Rowling’s writing, the structure of the story is very important, giving certain important information at the right time, building the mystery and suspense. Clues lead us to suspect multiple characters without knowing the answer definitely. There is a gap between the moment when Cormoran Strike figures out the identity of the killer and when the answer is revealed to the reader. Although this is Rowling’s first mystery novel, there was a great deal of mystery in her previous books. Rowling knows how to set up the hints and develop the plot and characters in an intricate way, to keep readers guessing. I was not able to guess the answer before it was revealed by Cormoran Strike, though there were many suspicious-sounding characters throughout the story. I am not as familiar with the mystery genre as I am with science fiction and fantasy, so I can’t accurately judge where this book stands in terms of subgenre and tropes in mystery novels. I don’t know whether its conclusion is one that regular mystery readers would have been able to figure out easily or not.

Reading Rowling’s writing is, again, a wonderful experience, as she guides us through London and through the intricacies of the case. Reading her outside of a Harry Potter book seems more comfortable now, due to The Casual Vacancy, and I was really excited when I heard about this book, without the added apprehension I felt before Vacancy was released. I enjoyed reading this book right from the beginning. The prologue about Lula Landry’s death was intriguing. The beginning of Part One immediately got me interested in the story and in getting to know Robin. There are some wonderful descriptions of London and details about characters that made the story fun to read.

One of the topics discussed in this book is race, because Lula is multiracial and was adopted by white parents. There are also several characters of different racial backgrounds in the story. Certain characters, including one of Lula Landry’s relatives, express bigoted views against racial minorities. Race isn’t the focus of the story, but it does play a role in the mystery. Rowling has written several books so far which mention discrimination and equality: the Harry Potter books obviously had a theme of fighting for equality (though mixed in real-world representation, including several female main characters, but not many racial minority characters, and no canon characters of several other minority identities); The Casual Vacancy had a theme of concern about the poor through the story of the Weedon family, included an Indian-British Sikh family (two of whom were viewpoint characters) with brief passages about the discrimination they face, and very briefly mentioned one character in a same-sex relationship. This makes me wonder if other books in the Cormoran Strike series will have similar mysteries in which societal discrimination is part of the story. Rowling has written about discrimination and equality in her stories, so I’m also hoping for more minority main characters in her future work.

Another topic discussed in the book is fame and celebrity. From the very beginning, we see how the media are focused on Lula Landry and talk about her death incessantly. As Strike interviews the different people who knew Lula, it becomes clear that no one knew her completely. There are also some glimpses into celebrity culture, the world of those who have fame and fortune. Most of us reading the story won’t have had the described experiences, but it’s a compelling story.

As I said in my review of Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy,[5] this is a book that has an automatic audience due to its author. I would recommend this book for fans of Rowling and fans of mystery. It has a suspenseful story and good writing, though I would have liked to get to know the characters better. Rowling has already written a sequel and expects it will be published next year.[6] I definitely plan on reading it. This is an exciting time for fans, with the prospect of new J.K. Rowling writing (in the new Cormoran Strike book and recently-announced Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them film[7]) in the near future. I look forward to it, and I hope there will be even more to come.


References

[1] Galbraith, Robert. The Cuckoo’s Calling. London: Sphere (an imprint of Little, Brown), 2013, Prologue, p. 5-6.

[2] Medicoff, Laura. “MuggleNet news roundup”. Posted on 20 July 2013 at MuggleNet. Retrieved on 3 October 2013 from http://www.mugglenet.com/app/news/show/7021.

[3] J.K. Rowling’s new Robert Galbraith website can be found at http://www.robert-galbraith.com.

[4] Karen. “Great Read!” Review of Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling. Posted on 7 July 2013 at Amazon. Retrieved on 3 October 2013 from http://www.amazon.com/review/R8GYN2HLDXVFB/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B007189SBQ&linkCode=&nodeID=&tag=.

[5] Sharmin, Ani J. “Book Review: J. K. Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’”. Posted on 16 November 2012 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 25 October 2013 from http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2012/11/16/book-review-j-k-rowlings-the-casual-vacancy/.

[6] See FAQ section of J.K. Rowling’s Robert Galbraith website: http://www.robert-galbraith.

[7] Hawk, Keith. “Warner Bros. Announces Expanded Creative Partnership With ‘Harry Potter’ Author”. Posted on 12 September 2013 at MuggleNet. Retrieved on 25 October 2013 from http://www.mugglenet.com/app/news/show/7209.

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