Little, Brown and Company, 2013, 455 pages
A brilliant mystery in a classic vein: Detective Cormoran Strike investigates a supermodel's suicide.
After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.
Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: his sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.
You may think you know detectives, but you've never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you've never seen them under an investigation like this.
I wish I could find a review written by someone who read this "debut novel" before "Robert Galbraith" was outed as a pen name for J.K. Rowling. It happened almost immediately, of course, leading to speculation (strongly denied by Rowling and the leaker) that it was all a publicity stunt. So every review now must inevitably make note of the fact that this is not, in fact, a debut novel, but the first book in J.K. Rowling's new adult mystery series. And like most other people who read it, I probably never would have if I hadn't been curious about what a non-Potter book by Rowling would be like. (Her first post-Potter book, The Casual Vacancy, just did not interest me and I haven't read it.)
I can understand why Rowling wanted to see how she'd be received under an assumed name. It must be hard, knowing that no matter what she writes for the rest of her life, it will never be as popular as her first series, and what her millions of fans really want her to write is more Potter books.
The protagonist of The Cuckoo's Calling has the very Potter-like name "Cormoran Strike," but it otherwise reads like a typical genre novel. Strike was an investigator in the British military police. He came back from Afghanistan with a prosthetic leg, and hung out a shingle as a P.I. Business has not been good, so the book begins with Strike in a bad way, like most shabby PIs in these sorts of novels, recently separated from his girlfriend, kicked out of their shared home and living in his office, for which he is badly behind on his rent and in need of clients besides the crazy former one who keeps sending him death threats.
In walks a rich bloke who wants him to investigate the suicide of Lula Landry, a supermodel who recently went splat on the sidewalk after (allegedly) jumping from her balcony. Strike at first thinks his would-be client is crazy, but the man really is Lula Landry's adoptive brother, and he believes Lula was murdered. Even though Strike doesn't see any reason to doubt the police's conclusion of suicide, it's hard to turn down a rich client offering a wad of cash, so he reluctantly agrees to take the case.
The investigation drags Strike into the world of London's rich and famous, a world in which he has peripheral connections because it turns out that he is himself the bastard son of a rock star. The celebrities he talks to constantly want to know about his estranged father. Strike has no interest in gratifying them or their curiosity, and through his jaded observations, we can sometimes hear Rowling's voice commenting on her own experiences with fame.
He had never been able to understand the assumption of intimacy fans felt with those they had never met.
In the inverted food chain of fame, it was the big beasts who were stalked and hunted.
The characters are what make the book, and this is where Rowling's hand is most evident. Cormoran Strike is a likable lug — he's smart, tough, a little rough, not a saint, but definitely a good guy, and while he certainly has much in common with his literary detective predecessors, he's not cut from other mold, he's clearly Rowling's own creation.
So is Robin, the secretary improbably thrown together with Strike at the beginning of the book. Arriving as a temp worker that Strike didn't intend to hire and can't afford, she finds herself secretly enthralled by the case and the idea of working for a detective. Robin proves herself to be clever and likable as well. Strike likes her, and so as the novel winds to its conclusion, we know that somehow she's going to wind up continuing to work for him, despite the much better permanent job waiting for her and her disapproving fiance.
So far, the hints of sexual tension between Cormoran and Robin are subtle. It's not quite Remington Steel or Moonlighting, but Rowling is definitely teasing the reader with genre conventions: Will they or won't they?
The conclusion of the Lula Landry case ends with a not completely shocking twist (I was about 50/50 on who the culprit was), but one that was constructed with the detail and groundwork that Rowling was known for in her Potter series.
Rowling's talent for interesting characters and worldbuilding does translate pretty well to the real world of adult fiction. The writing was serviceable, which is pretty much what I thought of her Potter writing. Rowling is very good at describing things with imaginative flair, but while she can turn a phrase, her attempts at clever prose are often too weighty to pull off the effect she seems to be striving for, and nowhere does she sound more forced than when she has Cormoran "talking like a soldier."
"It's that wounded-poet crap, that soul-pain shit, that too-much-of-a-tortured-genius-to-wash bollocks. Brush your teeth, you little bastard. You're not fucking Byron."
I asked myself, as I read this book, if I would have guessed that the author was really a woman had I not known beforehand. I can't say I would have for sure, but I'd definitely have suspected that Robert Galbraith's biography (supposedly a former Royal Military Police officer) was fictional. There are small hints throughout that do not quite ring true as a man's writing — I would say it's not so much that Cormoran Strike isn't believable as a man, but that Robin was just a little too believable as a woman, and too much unnecessary time was spent inside her head.
I did enjoy this book enough to read more in the series, though, so I was glad to discover that J.K. Rowling can, in fact, write pretty good books that aren't middle school stories about boy wizards. Given the way she has cocked up her American wizarding world (if/when I resume my Alexandra Quick series, I am definitely not going to integrate Rowling's latest canon into it), I think it's a good thing that she is moving on.
My complete list of book reviews.