Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
Let’s get this out of the way first. Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter. She used this pen name to do an ingenious experiment. After the Harry Potter series was over, she wrote two books. One she released under her own name, to great sales and horrible reviews. The other, this one, she released under a male pen name, to great reviews and horrible sales. Assuming that the quality of two works of similar length, aimed for a similar audience, by the same author, is not that incredibly uneven, Rowling proved two things: 1) book buyers are heavily influenced by author name recognition, and 2) book reviewers are prejudiced against the rich and famous authors of successful children’s books, and may favor male authors. I find these conclusions depressing, especially in their implications for new female authors, but don’t think they’re surprising or controversial at all. I’m glad Rowling was savvy enough to use her books to show that there is a problem in book publishing, marketing, and reviewing. I’m also glad she revealed her identity because I wouldn’t have picked up this book if I hadn’t known she’d written it, since I don’t often read in this genre. Personally, I think I preferred The Casual Vacancy, because I prefer drama to mystery.
Cuckoo’s Calling is a detective novel, very much bound in the traditions of that genre. Its main character is Cormoran Strike, a private eye with a prosthetic leg (from service in Afganistan) who’s living in his office because his girlfriend just dumped him. He investigates the death of Lula Landry, a model who supposedly committed suicide by jumping from her balcony. Much of the novel consists of his interviews with the various members of her family and entourage. The world Strike enters is high-fashion, high-glamour, high-roller, and the characters are mostly the selfish, image-conscious types you expect to find in that world.
As the climax approached, I found it increasingly difficult to step away from the story. The tension was masterfully managed. Galbraith/Rowling showed us Strike putting the pieces of the puzzle together without showing the puzzle itself, so that the revelation at the end was a surprise to the reader but not to the detective. It was the perfect way to finesse point of view issues in a detective story. The resolution was a surprise to me but one that did fit and make sense.
This is the beginning of a series, and in future books there will probably be building sexual tension between Strike and Robin, his secretary. That relationship involved an increasingly complex dance of manners between the newly engaged Robin, fascinated with detective work, and the vulnerable but often obtuse Strike. I’m looking forward to watching this develop, as I enjoy everything Rowling does.