I’d heard quite enough about J.K. Rowling’s latest foray into adult fiction – so downloaded the Kindle version to make up my own mind. Do I feel particularly outraged at her attempt to write under another name? Nope – after reading only a fraction of the snidely hostile reviews she accrued for The Casual Vacancy, it seemed an intelligent move to try and avoid the same bru-ha if she could. And authors writing under different pen-names for different genres is hardly ground-breaking stuff – so the big fuss it caused was just so much synthetic puff designed to fill column inches, it seemed to me.
Cormoron Strike, ex-soldier with half a leg missing, is on the ropes. Homeless and heartbroken as his destructive relationship with his fiancée finally comes to an end, he also faces financial ruin. Until the brother of a dead childhood friend walks into the office, desperate for him to look into the death of Lula Landry, his step-sister and celebrity model. The police are satisfied that her fall from a balcony window in Mayfair was suicide, but John Bristow believes otherwise. He pays Strike double his normal fee to uncover the truth, which is enough for him to keep the latest temporary secretary, Robin, who seems to be working out really well.
Rowling’s strength is making us care about her characters, while spinning a page-turning story and these talents are aptly demonstrated in this entertaining, enjoyable whodunit. I rapidly bonded with Strike – whose attention to his personal hygiene in difficult circumstances I found very endearing. As he painstakingly tracks through Lula’s life, building up a picture of a beautiful super-model and the price of fame – as well as the trappings. The pressure of paparazzi hounding her every move and hacking into her phone leaves her depressed and isolated in a smart flat that she hates. As with the best crime thrillers, I found I increasingly cared about the victim as Strike unearths more details about her character and life, so that her death feels like a genuine tragedy by the end. Which is exactly what a reader should be feeling in this genre – and so often doesn’t.
I particularly relished the cast of characters, along with their unfolding backstories. There are a variety of interesting people in the frame for Lula’s murder – and I had no problem that Strike got there before me. If Rowling had been writing in limited first person viewpoint, I would have been quibbling about it, but she didn’t. Did I see the denouement coming? Although several reviewers have claimed that they guessed early on exactly who had done it, I didn’t. Not that I was bothering to try too much, as I was fully engrossed in the story. I happen to think that endings are something that Rowling does particularly well – and this time is no exception. There is a real sense of poignancy at Lula’s death that could have been avoided, if only things had been slightly different. Strike’s own character progresses well throughout the story, with a couple of dangling plot-points to keep us wondering and eager to read the next book in the series.
Any niggles? The prologue seemed a tad clunky, but once Strike appeared the pace picked up and Rowling quickly settled into the story. I do wonder whether we actually need that awkward piece on the front of the narrative. The other issue I have is that the scene setting is patchy. In places it sings off the page. I could smell the scruffy office Strike inhabits and the glittering, ostentatious Mayfair flat was pin-sharp. However, the best writers in this genre also depict London with a similar cinematic clarity, and this is missing in The Cuckoo’s Calling. Though there is far too much to enjoy about this book to let such relatively minor weaknesses bother me – and they are noticeable is because the overall crafting of the book is so solid. I will definitely be buying the next one, whether Rowling chooses to continue using Robert Galbraith as her pen-name, or not.