With The Casual Vacancy, author J.K. Rowling proved that she could write something away from her Harry Potter universe. Perhaps still unconvinced of her ability to write something Harry Potter-unrelated, Rowling wrote her first mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Calling under a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith. The novel was met with a muted commercial reception, but rapturous critical reviews, but its under-the-radar status was busted when a chatty friend of one of Rowling’s lawyers outed her as Galbraith on Twitter. Quickly the book sold bucketloads of copies, and the book no longer stood on its own considerable merits, but was saddled with the Harry Potter baggage.
And that’s too bad because The Cuckoo’s Calling is a brilliant Agatha Christie impersonation. Rowling successfully updates the whodunit for contemporary times. The story is of Lula Landry, the titular Cuckoo, who leaps to her death. While the police believe her death to be a suicide, her lawyer brother doesn’t, and he turns to an acquaintance, Cormoran Strike, a private investigator who’s lived the kind of difficult life that would make Job appreciate his lot – Strike, a war vet and an amputee, is forced to camp out in his office because of his massive debts and a recent breakup of his engagement. A punchy and irascible figure, he finds it difficult to make friends.
That is until he meets Robin Ellacott, a young woman sent by a temp agency to work as his receptionist. An exceptionally bright and resourceful lady, she quickly endears herself to Strike with her enthusiasm and her instinctive talent in detecting. Strike and Robin create a fantastic rapport – a platonic Nick and Nora sort of union, that is periodically placed in check, before either one gets too chummy or familiar.
As with her other works, Rowling’s at her best when creating fictitious worlds, full of details. She’s got an unerring eye and a bottomless imagination. The London she chooses to show is a shallow ugly London full of shallow, ugly people. She’s withering in her description of the herds of trophy wives that canter through the streets of Kensington and Mayfair. These women are pulled, tucked, enhanced, tanned and bejeweled, and are noxious in their feelings of entitlement. When the presence of poverty intrudes in this glittery world, it’s equally acrid – Rowling doesn’t make poor people into dimwitted noble saints, and it’s to her credit that she doesn’t romanticize any class or group. Too often poor people are made into simple, one-note goody two shoes – too dumb to be conniving, like the more dashing and intelligent rich. In Rowling’s pen, people of all social classes are working for their own self-interest.
And because Rowling is so great at putting together a crackling story, the mystery is gripping – but more importantly, it’s fun. Strike is a great character to follow because underneath his tough exterior, he’s vulnerable and proud. He’s not a square-jawed hero like Dick Tracy, nor is he an infallible genius like Hercule Poirot; instead he’s very human -a funny and intelligent guy who’s got some terrible luck, but he’s not letting it get him down.
Hopefully, despite being exposed as Galbraith, Rowling will follow up The Cuckoo’s Calling with other Strike/Robin novels. She shows a real knack for telling a story that is at once smart yet still very accessible. It’s a great example of pop fiction at its best.