J.K. Rowling published her first detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, apparently to see what kind of response she would get to a novel that didn’t have her name attached to it. The book received strong reviews, but barely sold anything until word leaked – or “leaked” – that Rowling was the true author, at which point it became a global best-seller, along the lines of the more modestly-reviewed The Casual Vacancy. It turns out that Rowling has quite a knack for the detective genre, crafting a legitimate hard-boiled detective story, complete with a compelling main character, along the lines of the field’s masters, just updated to a modern setting, and populated with characters and red-herring subplots you might find in a classic mystery novel too.
The detective at the heart of The Cuckoo’s Calling, Cormoran Strike, is indeed hard-boiled, a very down-on-his-luck detective, discharged from the British armed services after losing part of one leg to an IED in Afghanistan, and momentarily living in his office after breaking up with his longtime, faithless girlfriend Charlotte. Strike receives two unexpected visitors to start the novel: A new client, the brother of one of his old school chums (who died when riding his bike into a local quarry as a teenager), asking Strike to investigate the alleged suicide of his adoptive sister; and a temporary secretary, Robin, whom Strike wasn’t expecting and probably can’t afford to keep, but who takes to the work far more than either she or Strike anticipated.
The suicide in question is that of Lula Landry, a supermodel and star of newspaper gossip columns who appears to have jumped to her death from her new luxury apartment, a building also occupied by a famous film producer and his coke-addict wife, as well as an American rapper who has written several songs about Lula. Her brother, John, doesn’t believe the official verdict of suicide, and wants Strike to find the truth, suspecting two hooded black men spotted fleeing from the area of her building on CCTV footage.
The Cuckoo’s Calling brought me back to the first Hercule Poirot novel, Death on the Nile, one of Agatha Christie’s finest works because of the broad set of characters she introduced and heavy use of red-herrings, where nearly every character who didn’t commit the murder at the heart of the novel has some other secret Poirot eventually sniffs out. Rowling has also populated her book with peculiar secondary characters and suspicious suspects, most of whom have something going on they’d rather you not know about, even if it had nothing to do with Lula’s murder. (Spoiler: She didn’t kill herself. Sorry.) While I understand Rowling’s prose has always provoked oppobrium from critics, I appreciate her highly evocative style of writing, long on descriptions to allow the reader to see the action in his/her mind – which suits how I read fiction.
I’m currently re-reading the Harry Potter series for the third time by reading a chapter a night aloud to my daughter – we’re on The Goblet of Fire and I’m running short of accents already – and, because I know the plots so well, I’m picking up all of the clues Rowling left along the way to point the perceptive reader to the ultimate reveal at the end of each book. She uses the same tactic in The Cuckoo’s Calling: Everything you need to know to figure out who did it is there in the book, but she blends these details into the dialogue so well that they didn’t stand out (to me, at least) as obvious clues.
The pleasure in detective novels isn’t so much about the whodunit as it is about the central detective character, whether it’s a hard-boiled shamus like the Continental Cop or an erudite eccentric like Nero Wolfe. Rowling appears to have studied the genre well, as Strike has plenty of aspects of the hard-boiled detective, but with modern flourishes, including what I might call his unusual parentage, and enough of an intellectual streak to call to mind Wolfe or Lord Peter Wimsey – which also means Rowling doesn’t have to have Strike fight his way out of most of his confrontations with suspects. His interactions with Robin, his less-interesting assistant who remains endearing for her innocent eagerness to participate in the detecting side of the job (perhaps an alter ego for the reader), also break type, as Rowling seems to have made it clear that the two aren’t going to shack up, a direction I hope she maintains in future books. It’s a promising beginning to a new series, especially if you liked Rowling’s detail-oriented writing style and the humor she always worked into the Harry Potter novels, and would like to see that brought to the hard-boiled detective arena, a genre where sparse prose is the usual rule. The next Cormoran Strike novel, The Silkworm, comes out on June 19th.