The Cuckoo’s Calling (M) by Robert Galbraith (pseudonym of J.K. Rowling)
When a gorgeous and adored supermodel’s death is judged a suicide, her brother hires detective Cormoran Strike, a war-vet amputee with his own connection to fame as the son of a rock star and his groupie girlfriend. Strike’s life is in shambles: he’s physically a wreck, he’s homeless after a horrible breakup, and he’s on the edge of financial ruin. This case—his only one—feels like his last lifeline, and he’s determined to find the truth, even if that is that Lula Landry did actually choose to kill herself. But there are barriers to his investigation at every turn, and everyone he interviews seems to have his or her own secrets to hide.
Yes, J.K. Rowling is back! After her first published novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy (M) (which I reviewed previously), I felt that perhaps her writing had been overtaken by her cynicism and disillusionment with modern-day government and the state of the poor. That novel felt so anxious to prove it was for adults and had complex characters that virtually none of them emerged likeable, and the novel was something of a mood-killer. In The Cuckoo’s Calling, however, I couldn’t be happier to have been proven wrong: Rowling has hit the sweet spot with regard to character development, presenting them as complex and real while still being empathetic and charming in their own way, even the villains.
The Cuckoo’s Calling falls somewhere in between the grating realism of The Casual Vacancy and the magic of Harry Potter (M), which I think is a lovely combination. And most of the success we can lay on the broad shoulders of Mr. Cormoran Strike himself: Rowling seems to excel at the limits of having just a handful of third-person narrators instead of a whole cast of them. Here we are mainly shown Strike’s perspective and that of his temporary secretary, Robin Ellacott, both of whom are dogged and likeable. Robin isn’t really like any other Rowling character, but Strike is a wonderful mixture of Harry Potter's Hagrid (in body type and perhaps accent), Mad-Eye Moody (with the war wounds and attitude of eternal suspicion), and Remus Lupin (the woeful, shaggy look, the intelligence, the life plagued with hardships).
But perhaps the most pleasant surprise is how Rowling leads us to feel empathy for most of the cast whom Strike interviews, those connected to Lula Landry: her driver, her adopted and biological family, her friends from rehab, her designer, her make-up artist, her security guard, her apartment cleaner, her rock-star boyfriend—people from both ends of the social and economic spectrum—in order to form a picture of the only person we never have a chance to meet, Lula herself. In doing so with light satire, Rowling takes a measured look at racial tensions, the price of fame, paparazzi, drugs, modeling, the police, the army, and even the politics of war and socialism.
This novel was lots of fun while still being moving, and it kept me rooting for Strike and Robin and guessing right up to the end. I’d love to read another about Strike’s continuing investigations. Which will be possible later this year with the release of the sequel, The Silkworm (M).