The draft of this review was written before I knew ‘Robert Galbraith’ was the pseudonym of J K Rowling. The knowledge hasn’t changed my opinion of the book, but it does add a certain je ne sais quoi, and I’ve had to alter the phrase ‘an extraordinarily accomplished first novel’.
The Cuckoo’s Calling is a classic detective story, with a classic detective as protagonist. Private Eye Cormoran Strike is a war veteran with physical and emotional wounds; he owes money; his long-term relationship has just broken up; he drinks too much and for the duration of this novel he’s homeless and sleeps in his office, living on pot noodles.
Robin Ellacott is sent to him from a temp agency, and when she sees the words ‘Private Detective’ engraved on the door, her favourite fantasy comes true:
Robin stood quite still, with her mouth slightly open, experiencing a moment of wonder that nobody who knew her could have understood. She had never confided in a single human being … her lifelong, secret, childish ambition.
In the best tradition of the genre, a new client, John Bristow, soon enters the picture:
The prospective client followed Robin into the room. The immediate impression was favourable. The stranger might be distinctly rabbity in appearance … but his dark grey suit was beautifully tailored, and the shining ice-blue tie, the watch and the shoes all looked expensive.
Supermodel Lula Landry has died after plunging from a Mayfair balcony; the death has been declared a suicide, and all the evidence seems to bear this out. Bristow, her adoptive brother (also the brother of Strike’s late childhood friend Charlie) doesn’t believe it. Strike is reluctant to take the case at first but Bristow offers a lot of money, and the salve to his conscience of seeing justice done.
An ex-MP, Strike knows how to run an investigation. He’s dogged and meticulous as he revisits the police evidence and conducts his own interviews with the wide cast of characters involved, from down-and-outs to couturiers, models, rap stars and members of the peerage. Luckily, he has a police contact and they can do each other some good – allowing Strike access to police files, autopsy reports and phone and computer records. He also has a tame computer whiz.
As well as poring for hours over CCTV footage, making detailed notes of people’s movements on the night of Lula’s death, digging up new witnesses and new information, Strike often gets out onto the mean streets of London, made even meaner by his lost leg and painful prosthetic.
And while sometimes dealing with the downtrodden underclass – Polish cleaners, drug addicts, prostitutes, psychiatric patients, doormen and chauffeurs – he also gets to see how the other half lives. His forays into the world of the rich and brainless are full of irony and sharp vignettes of truly awful people who say ‘yah’, and ‘rarely’ for ‘really’, and whose gossip is at best bitchy and at worst deeply spiteful. Not all the rich are brainless, of course; some of them are powerful and sinister. They’re all hiding something and a few are actively hampering Strike’s investigation.
Robin takes to all of this with enthusiasm and talent, doing a lot of the legwork but also coming up with leads of her own. The romance of detection doesn’t fade for her, despite the dark places it sometimes leads to and despite the disapproval of her fiancé, Matthew, who wants her to get a ‘proper’ job. She puts off telling Strike she’s actually been offered several good positions, providing one of the lighter strands of narrative suspense in the novel – will she or won’t she stay with Strike?
Strike himself is an extremely likeable character, even as somewhat meritriciously described by Robin to Matthew:
(‘Matt, honestly, if you saw him … he’s enormous and he’s got a face like some beaten-up boxer. He is not even remotely attractive. I’m sure he’s over forty and … he’s got that sort of pubey hair …’)
He’s overweight, out of condition and habitually dishevelled, but he’s also tough, loyal, thorough, good-natured (mostly) and has a great deal of presence as well as an intriguing back-story. He is the illegitimate son of a rock star and his mother was a famous groupie who died in mysterious circumstances; he has many half-siblings but is only close to one over-protective sister, Lucy, whose idea of sympathy ‘compared unfavourably to some of the techniques they had used at Guantanamo’. The development of the friendship between Strike and Robin is one of the many charming aspects of the novel, as she protects him from her knowledge that he’s sleeping in the office and the fact that she knows a lot about his past, and he protects her from his feelings of attraction towards her.
Again in keeping with the genre, there are many suspects, many red herrings, several false trails, more death and yes, a nice sting in the tail. There is also a continuing subplot of threatening and abusive letters, which Strike ignores, though they worry Robin. But none of this is ‘tricksy’ – Strike sorts things out through solid detective work. It all adds texture and depth to the plot, which is as carefully constructed as Strike’s investigation, as does the closely observed attention to detail throughout:
Down the whitewashed corridor they passed an open door, and a flat-faced middle-aged oriental woman stared back at Strike through the gauzy film of gold stuff she was throwing over a dummy; the room around her was as brilliantly lit as a surgical theatre, but full of workbenches, cramped and cluttered with bolts of fabric, the walls a collage of fluttering sketches, photographs and notes.
The many characters come to life, even the minor ones provided with authentic context and complicated histories, and the dialogue is snappy and often funny:
‘I’ve only got one leg.’
‘Don’t be silly …’
‘I’m not being silly … it got blown off in Afghanistan.’
‘Poor baby …’ she whispered. ‘I’ll rub it better.’
‘Yeah – that’s not my leg … It’s helping, though …’
The Cuckoo’s Calling is a particularly well-written, well-constructed detective story, densely populated by precisely-observed characters, and although it now can’t be called an extraordinarily accomplished first novel, it can still be described as a highly accomplished first crime novel. Several recent books from favourite established crime authors have been disappointing, so the advent of a remarkable new name with a new series character was, and continues to be, exciting.
It’s a pity that the gaff’s been blown so soon – driving sales into the stratosphere, but not allowing the novel to accumulate its own momentum – as the revelation will certainly colour responses both to The Cuckoo’s Calling and to the next in the series. But we can still hope this is the first of many from Robert Galbraith featuring Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott.
Postscript: Val McDermid (in a tweet to NRB) and Mark Billingham (also on Twitter), who wrote admiring straplines for The Cuckoo’s Calling (‘ … reminds me of why I fell in love with crime fiction in the first place …’ and ‘One of the most unique and compelling detectives I’ve come across in years’), have both said they didn’t know who the real author was. J K Rowling has implied that it was kept secret from most people at her publishers’ as well.
Robert Galbraith The Cuckoo’s Calling Little, Brown 2013 PB 464pp $29.99
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