Alice Bleby is a traveller, environmentalist and part-time writer.
Published November 20th 2013
What's in a name? The question is often posed rhetorically, but when you are J.K. Rowling the answer is clearly a lot; certainly enough to catapult the mildly-received début novel of a little known crime author on to the best-seller list, practically overnight.
The revelation that "Robert Galbraith" is the nom-de-plume of Britain's best-selling author, flexing her literary muscles in an entirely different genre, sent the London-based crime novel flying off the shelves into the hands of Harry Potter devotees everywhere including, I confess, my own. But it wasn't only post-Potter curiosity that catalysed my eager anticipation of this novel; I have a long-standing love of mysteries stories, nourished in particular by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Thus, a tale of a clever and mildly peculiar detective is an inviting prospect, regardless of its provenance.
Despite my best intentions, I found it hard to shake the tendency towards comparison with Harry. The richness of the descriptive language coupled with droll English narration creates a sensation of the literary familiar, although the magic (both literal and figurative) of Harry's world has been replaced by the significantly more sordid picture of modern London.
About a third of the way in, however, the story began to carry me along with it, and the down-and-out, one-legged detective Cormoran Strike (undoubtedly a rough diamond) became engaging in and of himself. The evolution of Strike's character and the revelation of his personal narrative unspool intriguingly alongside the investigation of the murder at the centre of the book.
The mystery revolves around the death of a super-model, Lula Landry on the face of it, a cut-and-dried suicide of a troubled young celebrity who ended her days by launching herself from the window of her outrageously-priced London apartment. Her brother engages Strike's services for a handsome fee, and even though Strike feels the case is probably hopeless, he accepts it out of pure material need. Pursuing the trail with the help of temp-turned-secretary Robin, Strike's investigations lead him to meet a string of colourful characters that formerly peopled Lula's world; and to a collection of clues that ultimately illustrate the truth of her untimely end.
Robin is a somewhat two-dimensional foil for Strike a pretty secretary with a conservative accountant boyfriend, cherishing secret dreams of helping solve mysteries. While she attracts interest as a character, as she becomes acquainted with Cormoran Strike simultaneously with the reader, her personal contradictions (particularly her supposedly fairy-tale romance with a partner apparently unsupportive of, or even unfamiliar with, her independence of spirit) are sometimes hard to stomach.
Strike's personal story is much more engaging his trials and tribulations with his tempestuous ex-partner Charlotte and his decoration for war service invite speculation and interest in the slow reveal of his history and circumstances. This element of the novel is arguably more interesting than the mystery itself, although it is not sufficiently developed to provoke significant tension between the possibility of Strike's personal collapse, and a collision with professional disaster, beyond his original need to take on the case.
As a murder mystery, The Cuckoo's Calling is less rewarding than it might be. Well before the answer is revealed to the reader, it is strongly hinted that Strike has solved the case, and the enthusiastic amateur detective hiding in every reader of mystery novels is, frustratingly and obviously, left in the dark. The outcome, as it is finally revealed through a dramatic finale, is clever enough, just; but not the marvel of logic and deduction found in tales of Sherlock Holmes. It's all a just a bit prosaic.
Ultimately, the virtues of this novel are classic Rowling elegant prose, replete with literary references, and evocative descriptions that bring London to life in the imagination. Despite an initial gloomy scepticism about the worth of her protagonist, apparently shared by character and author at once, Strike grows on the reader and becomes an amiable and even admirable hero, with endearingly human failings.
Galbraith/Rowling has left the door open for further adventures for Strike and Robin, but I'm not sure that 'The Cuckoo's Calling' will have sufficiently captivated readers so as to make this a Potter-esque success, or even anything close to it. It's not quite enough Harry for the fans, and not quite enough mystery for the detective-novel-buffs.
In the end, however, the question is whether or not it is a good read, not whether it lives up to its author's previous success, or whether it should spawn an extended series, a tv series or film trilogy, and associated merchandise. And to that non-rhetorical question, I would still answer yes; any excuse to wander through the beautifully illustrated streets of London with an oddly-named English character and into mystery will do
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is typical JK Rowling - easy to read, vivid descriptions and interesting characters. She has managed to get inside the head of a male character very well, which is not easy for a woman to do. I hope it leads to more Strike novels.