When I first heard that J.R Rowling had published The Cuckoo’s Calling, a detective novel under a pseudonym and I checked it, I was not very keen on reading it. But then, why not? I focus on crime fiction and after the secret was revealed a lot of people who do not usually read crime fiction would read The Cuckoo’s Calling. So, I asked for a review copy and the publisher kindly sent me a gorgeous paperback edition.
After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.
Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.
You may think you know detectives, but you’ve never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you’ve never seen them under an investigation like this.
When I first read the above paragraph the first thing I thought was “I am not interested in supermodels and multimillionaires.” Shame on me for – on that precise moment – not remembering Rowling’s other novel The Casual Vacancy. If there was something that really deserved to be said about that novel is the detailed, accurate description of human behaviour in relation to money and the heavy yet not totally overt criticism of the distribution of wealth in a community. The Cuckoo’s Calling is not an exception: Cormoran Strike represents a generation of soldiers sent to Afghanistan to fight for in war most of us have already forgotten and now they are back with health problems. And we do not seem to care. His life is a huge contrast with John and Lula’s who come from a well-known aristocratic family and have enjoyed a more comfortable life. Of course, social criticism is a constant in crime fiction since it portrays society’s worst fears and demons, but Rowling is an expert on this and she incorporates it into the novel, making it a powerful tale of social injustices.
If I had to describe Rowling’s style in just one word it would be fluid. Most books have ups and downs and that is OK, but hers do not. They always demand the readers’ attention and manage to really catch it. There more and less interesting parts, but the 440 pages that make the hardback edition are a masterpiece in rhythm. I have only read another writer who works this way and that is my beloved Kate Atkinson. The book is divided into parts and each part into chapters that have their own internal structure so that many of them end with a cliff hanger that makes you want to read “just another chapter more” until it is 2 a.m.
Another key element in crime fiction is characters. Cormoran Strike is a modern adaptation of the hard-boiled detective although I would add that his being English is also very important. He drinks, he smokes, he has health problems and basically he is a mess. But a very intelligent, witty and hard-working mess, even a strategic mess who knows who to ask and who to talk to (and how) in every situation to get what he wants. His secretary, Robin, whose narration actually opens the novel deserves some attention too. She is described as typically English, recently engaged and caught in the modern fight of what her family wants for her and what she really wants. If it were not for her, Strike could have never solved the case. Having said that, one has to ask: Why did not Rowling think of a female detective? Neither did Atkinson by the way, and I find it so interesting that such intelligent women could not imagine a female detective, that I am even a little angry at them. But then I pick one of their books and see that they make a quite accurate portrait of society with both men and women – good and bad – are present and I forgive them. However, regarding the mystery, I have to admit that I could not find an answer to a very important question – neither could other fellow bloggers – and that is why I gave the book four stars at GR instead of five.
So, would I recommend The Cuckoo’s Calling? Yes, definitely. To anyone, but specially to crime fiction fans. It is a page-turner, it makes easy reading, it contains some very interesting criticism about money, welfare and war (and how they are related) and above all, it is a good book. It does not matter if it’s Rowling’s or Galbraith’s. The Cuckoo’s Calling is a great crime novel and it throws some light on soldiers returning from the war, an issue society clearly needs to be aware of. And, if you loved the style and the themes, please check Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series. Another set of page-turner crime fiction sparkled with some constructive social criticism.