Novel writing is a fickle business. The success of a debut book depends more often than not on a precise, unknowable mixture of perseverance, publicity and sheer luck. Literary merit may not even feature: there are rubbish books that sell millions of copies – Fifty Shades of Grey being the most obvious recent example – and fantastic ones that don’t even get picked up – take John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which went on to win the Pulitzer only after his mother found a publisher for it eleven years after his 1969 suicide. The question then, for some commercially successful writers, is whether or not their books would be nearly as successful if it weren’t for established reputation. This, for example, was one of the reasons Stephen King adopted the nom de plume Richard Bachman for several novels he wrote in the late seventies and early eighties. The Cuckoo’s Calling was an experiment of the same sort: within three months of the book’s publication, Robert Galbraith was revealed to be a pseudonym of J.K. Rowling’s. Sales for the book on Amazon surged by more than 507,000% after she was outed.
The Cuckoo’s Calling is the second novel Rowling has written for adults since the end of the Harry Potter series, the first being The Casual Vacancy, which was published in 2012 to positive reviews and astronomical sales. It is the first in a series of crime novels featuring the private investigator Comoran Strike. A sequel, The Silkworm, was published in June this year. Growing up, I adored the Harry Potter series, but I chose to review this book for pragmatic rather than sentimental reasons: a gratis copy was given to me earlier this year, which I wanted to read and discard prior to moving cities. For full disclosure of bias, I will admit that tend to get bored by the formulaic conventions of crime fiction.
The plot unravels thus: Lula Landry, a supermodel, falls from her third storey apartment balcony. The death is hugely publicized; under widespread media scrutiny, the police investigation concludes it a suicide. But Landry’s brother, John Bristow, convinced otherwise, hires Comoran Strike to review the case. Strike, who formerly worked in the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police and was injured serving in Afghanistan, has an old connection to Bristow: Bristow’s older brother, Charlie, who died as a child, was one of Strike’s close childhood friends.
Paparazzi photos from Landry’s funeral form a visual catalogue of most of the persons of interest to the investigation. There is Ciara Porter, a pale, blonde supermodel with whom Landry was close; Guy Somé, a fashion designer who proclaimed Lula his muse; the inhabitants of the first floor apartment of Landry’s building – film producer Freddy Bestigui and his mercenary wife, Tansy Chillingham, who looks ‘like a rake with two plastic tangerines tied to it’; and Evan Duffield, a drug-addled musician with whom Landry had a tumultuous relationship and whom many suspect, given the very public knowledge that they rowed on the night of her death. Strike systematically works through the catalogue, also talking to several others: the security guard on duty the night of Landry’s death, Landry’s regular chauffeur, and a homeless woman Landry met in a mental health clinic.
In all respects, Strike conforms to the conventional requirements of the archetypal private eye: he is tall and physically imposing, strapped for work, disenchanted by and maladjusted to his mundane civilian life, and socially isolated. The only person he sees himself as being in regular contact with is his secretary, Robin Ellacott. Robin, for who detective work has been a ‘lifelong, secret, childish ambition’, begins working for Strike as a temp job while she searches for permanent employment. She is a recently engaged, young, ‘tall and curvaceous’ strawberry blonde – how many books will it take for her to meet some trouble and dutifully assume the role of damsel in distress? Naturally, Robin’s fiancé disapproves of Strike, and her continuing employment by him predictably strains the relationship, which is reinforced by clumsy symbolism. Following an argument she and her fiancé have, Robin ominously notices ‘a fragment of frozen pea caught in the setting of her engagement ring’, which disturbs the brilliance of the sapphire and diamonds she so recently couldn’t stop herself gawping in awe at. One feels acutely the irony of overstatement in a book about deduction.
As his investigations continue, Strike begins to think that the suicide isn’t a suicide after all, even in the absence of any tangible evidence to the contrary –quelle surprise! He imagines a killer ‘lost in rage, half dragging, half pushing her, and finally, with the brute strength of a highly motivated maniac, throwing her’ over the third floor balcony.
The Cuckoo’s Calling is a classic whodunit of the cozier English variety: we are presented with an array of potential suspects, wary of their testimonies and accounts, unsure of which to believe, and kept guessing in the dark until the ‘incurably observant’ protagonist perfectly connects the dots, jumping to conclusions that are inevitably correct, to reveal the truth and restore justice to the blighted world.
The popularity of commercial crime fiction seems to exemplify the fact that there are many people in this world who, like Robin, harbour a secret fantasy about being private investigators. The point of these sorts of novels, of course, is that we are given the opportunity to try and identify the perpetrator as the facts are revealed. Determined not to be caught out by unexpected twists, I read with wariness both the direct testimonies and Strike’s presumably accurate impression of the individuals giving them, the unfortunate result of which was that I found myself not particularly caring who committed the crime at all.
Though formulaic, the novel is intricately plotted and reasonably entertaining. In places, the narrative voice is intrusive (that Strike, an ex-army, knows that Robin’s hair is styled in what is called a chignon, for example, beggars belief). Rowling favours certain words that are used repeatedly and a little too inelegantly to elude notice (perfunctory, evinced, stolid, gaudy and desultory, to name a few). The adverb ‘coolly’ is also characteristically Rowling: when Strike responds ‘coolly’ to a dig about his background (he is an illegitimate child of a famous musician), I couldn’t help but recall the icy exchanges between Harry Potter and Malfoy. And as she did throughout the Harry Potter series, Rowling continues to demonstrate her mastery of humorous writing. By far the most enjoyable passage in The Cuckoo’s Calling is a conversation that takes place in a pub between Robin and a very drunk Strike.
Ultimately, though, The Cuckoo’s Calling lacks oomph – even the final confrontation is slightly lacklustre. I am of the same opinion as Kate Mills, fiction editor at Orion Books, who described the book as ‘well-written but quiet’. She belongs to one of several publishing companies who must be kicking themselves now for rejecting the novel, the manuscript of which Rowling reportedly submitted anonymously. As for the question of talent versus luck, it’s a pity that Galbraith’s cover was blown so soon, because, well, now we’ll never know, will we?
The Cuckoo’s Calling
by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)