My The Cuckoo’s Calling review examines the success of the novel once the true author was revealed, as well as a comparison to her other serious work. In case you missed it, The Cuckoo’s Calling was written by J.K. Rowling, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
MILD SPOILERS. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.
I was relieved to love The Cuckoo’s Calling. I read so many bad reviews of The Casual Vacancy that I put off reading it until I felt less like I would be reacting to other reviews. But I want to love it. You know why? There are two things as great as everyone says they are, Elvis Presley and the Harry Potter series. People are going to be reading about Ron and Hermione 500 years from now. Those books are simply amazing. Seven excellent books released over ten years and not a clunker in the bunch? I really can’t think of another writer that had a run like that. J.K. single-handedly re-ignited the flame of reading for grade school kids. Remember? There were freaking ten-year-olds sleeping out all night to buy a book. All these teenager books? From Twlight to the The Hunger Games and everything in between? Those authors should thank J.K. every night before they go to sleep. I know I do. So let’s not pretend for one second that Rowling isn’t a world-class writer from whom we should expect big things.
I do have reservations, as you’ll see in this The Cuckoo’s Calling review. It can be weird when young adult writers publish a book for adults. I will love Judy Blume until the day I die. Thanks for explaining adolescence to me, Judy! But… the talented young adult writer hasn’t had much success with writing for adults. I feel bad saying it! That’s how much I like Judy Blume.
See also: A Mortal Mistake Book Review
And no writer has a perfect record. Hell, Shakespeare has all kinds of lesser works. Call me the next time you hear someone quote Cymbeline. John Steinbeck wrote both The Grapes of Wrath, which is great, and Tortilla Flat, which isn’t bad. Faulkner broke new literary ground with the unconventional structure of The Sound and the Fury. The unconventional narrative structure– it’s part play!– of Requiem for a Nun somehow makes it more boring and it’s a sequel to Faulkner’s gangster book, Sanctuary, so it should be awesome. I could rattle off crappy Faulkner books all day. The Unvanquished. The Mansion. The Reivers. Hell, I like those book, except for The Unvanquished. But they are not his top-shelf work. So maybe Ms. Rowling is from a review standpoint, going eight out of nine, but that’s pretty damn good. Probably the only writer I can think of with a perfect record is Harper Lee and she only wrote the one book.
My wife, the lovely Kelly, is deep in the middle of a cozy mystery stage. I like the occasional cozy, but prefer things a little more hard boiled. “Oh my Goodness, there’s a carcass in the solarium! Off to the charming local bistro for a cafe au lait and to discuss village secrets!” It gets to me after a while. The Cuckoo’s Calling falls nicely in the middle of cozy and hard boiled. Sam Spade never had to go to a children’s birthday party. Miss Marple never encountered so much cocaine use. There’s a lot in this world that is just fun to read about, the restaurants, the sights of London, the flats, the clubs, the crazy families, all lovingly described. I was surprised how much J.K. knew her way around a pub!
The ultimate goal of any cozy mystery is to curl up and lose yourself in a fun place to visit. In that way, The Cuckoo’s Calling skews more towards cozy than hard boiled. Sure, it’s serious. There’s a murder and the motives of greed and hatred that underly that. But I didn’t spend much time trying to figure out who was the murderer or ponder man’s inhumanity to man. But I didn’t for one second think that the killer was going to get away with it. I knew we’d catch them when some key piece of information was cast in a new light by a new discovery. “By jove, the pensioner’s son was once in the dance troupe!” But I really enjoyed the characters and the fun of getting to the resolution.
Speaking of clues, Rowling is an expert at sprinkling red herrings and actual clues. Remember when they find the locket in Order of the Phoenix? There’s lots of moments like that in this book, although they don’t take two books to pay off. Again, I don’t really care about fair play in mysteries. A seasoned mystery reader might figure out who the killer is, but they might not. There’s a lot of choices. My two main guesses were wrong.
While I’m musing about the nature of mysteries, I do think it’s funny that most American mysteries follow that “I want that money” model, where British mysteries have a “it started many years ago” thing. It seems to me that a disproportionate number of British mysteries start when someone recognizes a picture is in the paper. “I couldn’t believe it. After all these years and there he was!” The Cuckoo’s Calling is very British, although I promise I’m not spoiling anything with the picture in the paper crack.
One funny reservation I had with the book was that I read that the detective, the delightfully named Cormoran Strike is a retired military policeman. So my Jack Reacher alarm bell started to go off. Lee Child’s ultra-tough hero Jack Reacher is a retired military cop who is a killing machine who takes no shit and all the ladies love. Cormoran Strike is, to the say the least, not any of those things. Strike is an investigator first and foremost and Rowling lets us see lots of the day-to-day activities of a private eye. They seem believable, lots of worrying about what a jury would think. Rowling’s world if anything, cuts a little too close to Douglas Adams farce.
Cormoran and his longtime fiance have recently broken up and he is making his home in his office when John Bristow, the brother of a super model who jumped to her death, except Bristow thinks she was pushed. He engages Strike to find out for sure, leading into the world of rich people and the strange hanger’-on wannabes around them.
Probably my favorite part of the story is the origin story of Strike’s gal Friday, Robin Ellacott. I believe she is literally modeled on Sam Spade’s secretary, Effie Perinne (Yes, I had to look that name up). Although Robin is a lot nicer and more discrete, we see the beginnings of a fierce loyalty to Strike and a blossoming love of uncovering the truth. After being assigned by a temporary agency, Robin finds she actually enjoys the processes of private detecting. Look for her disapproving fiance Matthew to die in a future volume if this is to be the series it seems like it is going to be. Will Strike and Robin get together? I think so, but maybe not.
My biggest beef with the book is a little obscure. At the beginning, we change perspectives with chapters. So one chapter will be from Robin’s perspective– she runs right into Strike! Who is this large oaf?– and the next from Strike’s– Who could be outside my door this early? But as the book goes on, the points of view bleed into each other and the reader will see into Robin and Strike’s heads in the same chapter. Not a big deal, but it did jump out at me that some editor should have piped up. It might be difficult to edit J.K. Rowling.
Another quibble is that sometimes good writers can try to make every little moment too interesting. When three people are eating, one of them doesn’t necessarily have to be doing something disgusting. There’s also a surprising amount of literary slapstick in the book, which is always weird. There is a prominent bruised boob that we hear about a lot.
One thing that I don’t think that the Harry Potter books get enough credit for is that they are absolutely hilarious. Which means that J.K. is very funny. And the Cuckoo’s Calling has a wicked sense of humor.
I don’t know if this is an illusion– and I’d be interested to hear from anyone who read the book before it became known that J.K. Rowling wrote it– but sometimes there is an authentic feel to stories from people we know have lived some of it. That’s why it is always so annoying when we find out that memoirs are fiction. “Man, this guy really knows the circus!” And then when we find out that they were never in the circus, we feel like schmucks. But I feel like J.K. really understands what it is like to have the press following you around. And she seems to really know the tricks that rich people use to avoid the press, which is actually kind of illuminating. Like Ms. Rowling proposes a chauffeur, chauffeured relationship that seems very genuine. And there’s a bit where a man wears a wolf mask to throw off the paparazzi that seems like a bit of rich person wish fulfillment: “I should just wear a mask, then they can’t get any pictures!” We get a lot about what models look like when they’re just walking around, tall, impossibly skinny, a little bit strange to be in the same room with. I don’t know if it’s true, but it certainly rang true to me.
See also: Finders Keepers Review
Just for fun: Some Similarities Between The Cuckoo’s Calling universe and the Harry Potter universe:
Names, obviously. I think I read somewhere that J.K. has a list of names somewhere that she steals from lists at, say, the local church or sign-in sheets at secure buildings. So I feel like she just kept going down the list. Cormoran Strike, the private detective in Cuckoo’s Calling could have been year eight’s defense against the darks arts teacher. Lula Landry could have been another of playboy Ron Weasley’s girlfriends. Evan Duffield? Maybe a Hufflepuff beater. Rochelle Onifad, a death eater.
Moral Compass. I know you can’t really draw conclusions about writers from their writing. But I would say that Rowling has an unerring moral compass. Harry Potter always knew the right thing to do, and always did it. Cormoran Strike always knows the right thing to do, although he’s slightly less reliable than Harry. It’s not that the situations in CC aren’t morally complex, it’s that there is always a right answer and you can tell a lot about the characters by how they perceive the right thing to do.
Strangely sexless. I feel like JK is on some very basic level, a romantic and it really comes through in her books. In her books, relationships aren’t about sex. So when she talks about sex, it always seems like there’s part of her brain that knows that sex is part of a relationship, but there’s never any heat in her writing. That’s okay, though. It’s not fricking 50 Shades of Grey. And of course, sexual heat would have been a strange choice in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Accents. I always think it’s weird in books when we start to get phonetic spellings. For me, it brings up a lot of questions about who the narrator is. Sometimes it makes the narrator, that part of the book which is being reported, the unknowable source who can gaze into the thoughts of many different characters, seem judgmental, like the narrator thinks these people are lower class. And then there’s the fact, like if a book is about a Welsh guy and everything is written phonetically, I’m always thinking, this guy wouldn’t think when he saw a written word, “that’s not how you say “Was it,” you say it “Wuzzit,” he would read “Was it” as “Wuzzit” and not give it a thought. But having said that, Rowling has always had a lot of fun with language, Hagrid and Fleur Delacour for instance. And we get some of that in this book, mostly with the murdered model’s mother.
Orphans. I don’t know that there is one traditional nuclear family in this book and I mean that in a good way. All of the family relationships that might seem strange from a distance are treated as healthy. The only traditional family I can think of from Rowling’s work are the Dursleys, who are, ahem, not painted in a positive light.
Not Lazy. I find that when a lot of writer’s find success, their books become shorter, their descriptions terse. This is number 82 in the series, James Patterson might be heard to say, people know what Alex Cross looks like. But not J.K.. Her books became longer and longer and she let her literary flag fly.
Every Day Horror. A surprising amount of serious things happening with a light-hearted background. Where were you when Katie Bell got hexed in Hogsmeade? I won’t say too much about CC, but there is a light-hearted feel to a lot of it, but it is still a dangerous universe.
Voldemort. Just kidding. No Voldemort in Cuckoo’s Calling.
Swear word note: Oh, I also get the sense from this book and a lot of other things that the “C” word (Hint: Not Cuckoo or Calling) is not as bad a word in the U.K. You’ve been warned.
By the way, the editor of this web site is a Harry Potter fan girl.