Let me start at the end and work my way backwards, which is pretty much what happens in a detective thriller, at least a classic one anyway. Someone is dead, and the detective is hired to trace the story back to its origin. Why is that person dead? What was the motive, be it suicide or homicide? Then, the story ends when the detective susses out the true cause of death, the motivation that would surely be the beginning if it were most other sub-genres of fiction. That’s what happens when the detective genre works well, which it does for J.K. Rowling (pseudonym Robert Galbraith), in the beginning of her new Cormoran Strike series.
First, I’ll admit that I knew it was Rowling when I first read the novel, and of course that changed the way I approached it had I thought it was simply a new writer named Robert Galbraith. That being said, I had recently tried reading Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and it was not the page turner I had expected from her, even without the famous Mr. Potter in the narrative. So, my recent history suggested that I should be more open-minded about this book, to not expect a Harry Potter, but also not to expect anything like Vacancy. Otherwise, why would she have chosen a pseudonym?
The story is simple enough. A supermodel’s adoptive brother hires private detective Cormoran Strike to figure out what really happened to his sister when she sailed to her death out of a high-rise window. The police had ruled it a suicide, but the tale just didn’t ring true to the brother, so he sees Strike. What I loved about the story from the beginning was its vivid descriptions that didn’t linger but that simply explained and then moved on. That’s what I’ve come to expect from Rowling, and she returns to form from the very start of this one.
Strike is in the mold of such rumpled detectives as TV’s Columbo, not stylish like Christie’s Hercule Poirot, and I think that suits him. He has a bright mind, and the rumpled facade causes others not to take him or his mind seriously, so he can really delve into the situation at hand, which in this case is a supermodel’s supposed suicide. Needless to say, he uncovers layers to the case that give him pause, in the end realizing a conspiracy of unfathomable depth. Of course this puts him in personal danger and he must figure out the true depth of things before anything befalls him or his associate/secretary Robin.
There’s of course a latent sexual tension between Strike and Robin, but it remains under the surface, unlike so many detective stories I’ve read where the P.I. is a rogueish ladies’ man who gets not only the secretary but any other woman who is even tangential to the case at hand. Oh yes, and Strike is missing a leg. While that is not really central to the story, it still affects it, however, because I sense his discomfort and embarrassment about the missing limb that keeps him somewhat humble throughout.
As for Robin, she is new to Strike’s office, but she proves herself more than adequate with her assistance. I sense the two of them will keep up their subtle tango as the series goes on, but I think the dance itself is enough to keep the energy charged without them ever becoming physical. Some of the best collaborations really exist because of that tension, and if it stretches too thin it will snap, and then their connection and the help they offer each other will be at an end.
What I love so much about The Cuckoo’s Calling is its sense of timing. It reads quickly without flying through important details. Rowling set up the pace well, and incorporates her reveals at just the right places for them. I forgot pretty fast while I was reading it that 1) it was written by the same woman who wrote Harry Potter, and 2) the characters weren’t real. That is the mark of good fiction, in my opinion, that you get so involved in the story as a reader that it blurs the line between reality and fiction.
I look forward with baited breath to the next book in the series (The Silkworm), coming this summer. I would recommend this book and series to anyone who enjoys the classic detective genre. I would leave Harry Potter expectations at the door, too, because this is a completely different kind of animal.
I give this novel FIVE stars.