We all know by now that Robert Galbraith is the queen herself, J.K. Rowling. Fans are celebrating, but post-unveiling we are now left wondering – is the book any good?
The story is a straight up detective novel, in the English crime tradition. We open the narrative following the death of supermodel Lula Landry, whose apparent suicide has the press in a frenzy. Three months later, private detective Cormoran Strike is asked to investigate if, in fact, Landry was pushed.
Together with his new secretary, Robin, Strike navigates the murky waters of celebrity culture, attempting to put Lula Landry to rest, once and for all.
Potter fans be warned (as if The Casual Vacancy didn’t tip you off by now), The Cuckoo’s Calling is the next step in Rowling’s clear decision to try things overtly different from The Boy Who Lived.
That said, even given the cloak-and-dagger nature of The Cuckoo’s Calling, Potter fans are likely to find more they recognise in this secret side project than they did in The Casual Vacancy.
Within the writing, there are bursts of recognition, like flashes of a distant memory. There is a familiar focus on names (bird names take centre stage in this novel), and you can be sure that the most die-hard of fans will already be checking their various meanings and connotations.
The physical descriptions are like the wave of a friend, reminding you of Rowling’s immense skill in bringing a character to life with a few swift strokes of her pen.
There are also some characteristics that we wish Rowling had left behind in her Potter days, such as the pages and pages in which she dumps (admitedly necessary) information on the reader. These have certainly developed from the Harry/Dumbledore conversations in which an entire book would be summarised, but are still offputting in their frequency.
Of course, this kind of information dump is a mainstay in the crime genre, and the question and answer style implemented in The Cuckoo’s Calling reads a lot more authentically than some of the occasions when these occurred in Potter.
As the two main characters, Cormoran Strike and Robin (both bird-related names, for those keeping score) leave a lot of room for development. In The Cuckoo’s Calling there is something vaguely unsatisfying about the large, burly detective and his attractive, plucky sidekick.
You finish the novel hoping that there is more to come for these two characters because their own stereotypical nature is only heightened by the range of brilliantly drawn bit-players surrounding them. Rowling can do better than this trope, and if a series follows as planned, we hope that she does.
The Cuckoo’s Calling is an enjoyable, entertaining read. You read it with the certainty that all loose ends in the Lula Landry case will be resolved by the final page, as part of the contract between a detective novel writer and a reader.
Rowling follows the crime conventions to a T, and the structure she implements doesn’t impede her story in any way. The side characters, in particular, are well drawn and diverse. There is enough suspense to keep you turning the pages.
The detective genre really does allow Rowling to flex the muscles she did not always have occasion to use in Potter, as she addresses more ‘adult’ scenarios, and twists the plot in whatever direction she fancies.
Yet for all that, there is the unsettling feeling that Rowling is doing nothing here that hasn’t been done before by generations of writers. There is nothing in particular about The Cuckoo’s Calling that makes it stand out from the shelves of preexisting crime novels.
Had Robert Galbraith never have been unmasked, he could have gone on to publish many best-sellers without anyone really caring who he was. There is something comforting in the structured formula Rowling makes use of, but there is nothing ground-breaking in it.
With the hindsight that Rowling authored it, you can see the hallmarks of her writing, but without her name having been attached to the novel, it is most likely that you would have read the book with enjoyment, and not thought a lot about it after you finished it.