On one of those rare days that I spent several hours away from my computer and away from Tumblr, news broke that J.K. Rowling had written a new book under a pseudonym. I came home to a Tumblr dashboard full of posts relaying the news and I knew instantly that I’d be reading this book. There had been an almost universal ambivalence about The Casual Vacancy, Rowling’s other post-Potter writing endeavor. But the synopsis of this new book — The Cuckoo’s Calling — sounded different. For one thing, it was a mystery novel, which Rowling had often expressed a desire to write. For another, even the synopsis sounded more engaging. How could a book about “Detective Cormoran Strike” be boring?
The book’s plot centers on the death of Lula Landry, a model who met her demise by falling from the balcony of her upscale flat in London. Paparazzi were present, the media went crazy when she died, and the police ruled that it was a suicide. Three months after Lula’s death, Detective Cormoran Strike is approached by her adopted brother, John Bristow, who thinks that Lula may have been murdered. Strike — as he is called in the book — is a bit of mess, but he takes the case because Bristow promises a hefty paycheck.
At the very beginning of the book, we meet Robin Ellacott. Robin has been sent by a temp agency to be Strike’s secretary. She finds him disheveled and living in his office after breaking up with his long-term girlfriend. Robin — who has harbored a secret desire to work with a private detective — is quick to relay information to him and tactfully ignores the fact that he is living in his office. Robin is pretty amazing, but we’ll talk more about her later.
Personally, this book happened to come at a good time in my reading schedule. I had just finished devouring the first Flavia de Luce mystery and Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, so I was in a mystery mood. Eighty pages into the book, just when I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t get hooked, I found myself completely invested. At that point, they had begun interviewing suspects and the pace was really picking up. Those interviewing scenes were very well-written and were just plain fun to read. Throughout the book, J.K. Rowling’s ability to paint a scene well and move along the story shone through. I can see why folks thought this might be her handiwork, Twitter leaker notwithstanding.
As with any mystery novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling does follow the traditional motif of being introduced to a case and then being gradually shown suspects, each of whom lets out a bit more information pertaining to the case. Rowling does not deviate from the typical mystery novel formula very much, but I think she can be given a pass on that. Mystery novels do tend to follow a certain path and I don’t think Rowling should be expected to change that up very much. At least, not in her first foray into this genre.
Something that I found interesting was the realistic bits and bobs that permeated the novel. Perhaps I’m just out of touch with modern mysteries, having read mostly classic mystery novels in the past, but I liked that Strike mentioned the court and the jury needing information down the line. That wasn’t something that ever occurred to me while reading mysteries in the past, so I liked that Rowling put that detail in there.
Another realistic detail was the mention of Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain. I’m not sure why, but it was really interesting to me that she would mention him by name several times in the story. That really dates the novel and I’m not sure if that’s something that writers should be looking out for or not. It sort of took me out of the story whenever Brown was mentioned because it was a remnant of the real world intruding into the fun story that was being weaved. And I know that Strike’s story takes place in the real world, I guess I was just surprised that it took place in a Britain that existed a few years ago.
At first, I wasn’t too sure about Strike as a protagonist. His past was very vague, his present day story was shrouded in mystery, and I didn’t feel close to him as a reader for a while. But then details began to sneak out and slowly I felt like I was in his court. By the end of the novel, I was really rooting for him. As I said, in the beginning, Strike seems to be a bit of a mess. But slowly, he cleans up his act and becomes absorbed in the case he has taken, and that’s when he really starts to shine.
Robin was, in my opinion, a fantastic yet underutilized character. She certainly has some super awesome moments that I will not spoil for you here, but I wonder if she was a bit undeveloped. We start the book off with her, so I guess I was expecting a bit more. We virtually never see her without Strike and all we hear about her fiancé, Matt, is that he disapproves of her job at Strike’s office. We’re told that Robin has always wanted to work in a detective’s office, but why she feels that way is not really explained. She absolutely sparkles in certain scenes, I just wish we had some more backstory on her or something. Perhaps in the next book.
Overall, I ended up loving this book. It was an interesting murder mystery that shone a light on celebrity culture and the media’s role in that. I find it interesting that this book, written under a pseudonym, sold fewer copies than The Casual Vacancy but received better reviews. I can understand why J.K. Rowling wanted to release this book away from the celebrity culture and pressure that she writes about in The Cuckoo’s Calling. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, though, I wonder how the next Cormoran Strike novel will sell.