The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike)

Unless you have been living on another planet for the last few weeks, you are unlikely to have missed the press coverage that followed the leaked revelation that this ‘debut’ novel was actually written by JK Rowling.

Like about a million other people, I wanted to read it as soon as I heard. Why though? Yes, I am an English Graduate that loves Harry Potter and no, I’m not in the least bit ashamed to admit it. If you’ve read my other book reviews you’ll know that as far as I’m concerned whichever fictional worlds allow us that escapism are fine by me. But, I wasn’t overly enamoured with The Casual Vacancy, Rowling’s first adult novel published in 2012. So why the immediate need to read this?

I think in part it was the genre of this one that appealed – I rather like a good old murder mystery, particularly when set in England. I am a die-hard Agatha Chrisite fan and also absolutely love Susan Hill’s Simon Serailler series for that reason. The first in the Serailler series, The Various Haunts of Men was published in 2007 and was given to me by my wonderful cousin Dee to read whilst in hospital after having my first daughter. As such it’s always inextricably tied in with memories of a very happy time and I’m pretty sure I had ‘Serailler-like’ ideas in my head before I started reading this.

I probably also partly wanted to give Rowling another chance. It is all too easy for one slightly negative experience with an author to put me off them completely but when that author is the creator of Harry Potter, well, it’s slightly different… She has given me literally days of literary pleasure over the years, the least I can do is try her new book.

The blurb says:

When a troubled model falls to her death from a snow-covered Mayfair balcony, it is assumed that she has committed suicide. However, her brother has his doubts, and calls in private investigator Cormoran Strike to look into the case. Strike is a war veteran – wounded both physically and psychologically – and his life is in disarray. The case gives him a financial lifeline, but it comes at a personal cost: the more he delves into the young model’s complex world, the darker things get – and the closer he gets to terrible danger…

A gripping, elegant mystery steeped in the atmosphere of London – from the hushed streets of Mayfair to the backstreet pubs of the East End to the bustle of Soho – The Cuckoo’s Calling is a remarkable book. Introducing Cormoran Strike, this is a classic crime novel in the tradition of P. D. James and Ruth Rendell, and marks the beginning of a unique series of mysteries.

Which is a damn good blurb actually. The only part of it I’d dispute is the ‘elegant’ part. I actually found the story quite gritty – but not in a bad way. Cormoran Strike is about as far from elegant as possible, so a ‘gritty’ story fits well with his ‘gritty’ character. I haven’t entirely made up my mind about him, but then again I don’t think we are meant to. As the blurb mentions, he is ‘wounded psychologically’ and Rowling doesn’t make it easy for the reader to get inside his head. As any fan of Harry Potter knows, she is a master character builder and as this is the first in a planned series, I’m sure his character will unfold in due course.

In any case, as we know, the blurb wasn’t necessary to hook me in this time as the (real) author’s name alone did that. Having said which, it does give enough details to quite possibly have piqued my interest anyway. The only thing it doesn’t do is mention Robin, Cormoran’s Temp, which is rather a shame. She arrives from an agency at the start of the novel and is definitely the most immediately likeable character in the novel. She is very ‘normal’ which sounds a lot less flattering than I mean it to. I just mean she is easy to identify with, in contrast to the slightly strange Cormoran who is always a little out of reach and whose slight weirdness even extends to his name! I have no doubt she will feature in the whole series and I sincerely hope she ditches her whinging boyfriend sometime soon.

Anyone else pick up on the similarity of the central premise to The Sea Sisters (my first book review on this blog)? In both, the question posed at the start of the novel is whether the troubled sister committed suicide or not and in both cases it is a sibling that kick starts the investigation into the truth. Interestingly, The Sea Sisters left me guessing more than The Cuckoo’s Calling but then I guess the latter being publicly plastered everywhere as a ‘Murder Mystery’ kind of gives you a clue as to the outcome in this case. It doesn’t matter. I even guessed who did it (although not precisely how or why) and still enjoyed the read to the end.

Cormoran’s investigation into the ‘suicide’ is underpinned with snatches of his private life; enough to build up a very basic idea of his Military past but no more than that. Again, I have no doubt that subsequent novels will add subsequent layers and depth to his own personal story. I can even see the possibility of a ‘Ron and Hermione’ type conclusion between him and Robin and sort of hope I’m right.

The story is cleverly written – you’d expect nothing less really. All the loose ends are tied up and all the unanswered questions relating to the death are answered. More importantly though, I cared what those answers were. Hence all those original reviewer comments of ‘very accomplished for a debut novel’. One publisher (who turned it down!) described it as ‘quiet’ and I can see what she meant. The pace is steady; if you’re looking for fast-paced, page-turning action with gruesome forensic detail then this probably won’t hit the spot for you. There are no mad chases or urgent deadlines (bar the fear of another death…) but nevertheless, it was far from boring. Huge thanks to my wonderful Dad for buying it for me.

So why the decision to write under a pseudonym? JK Rowling points out that the Harry Potter series is in the main, also a ‘whodunit’ at heart but goes on to say that she was “yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre, to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback”. She also said that by creating a male pseudonym she created an “excuse not to make personal appearances or to provide a photograph”. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think we are being the whole story here and no doubt we never will.

Some ‘Cuckoo’ facts:

  • Prior to the leak, the novel had sold 8,500 English-language copies across all formats and received two TV Production offers.
  • Since the leak, it shot to Number 1 in the hardback fiction chart, selling 17,662 copies and pushing Dan Brown off the top spot. Warner Bros. are now said to be interested in turning it into a film.
  • In the overall UK book charts it reached Number 3 behind John Grisham’s Racketeer in paperback and Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, which climbed to Number 2 following the leak.
  • The second novel in the series is already finished and will be published next year – apparently under the name of Robert Galbraith.

If you’ve read it, there are more facts about the inspiration behind the novel here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jul/24/jk-rowling-robert-galbraith-harry-potter

I look forward to part two. Have any of you read it? What did you think?

The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike)

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