Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling

No regular column this week because I was reading and writing about Galbraith’s debut novel instead. And about the new Rowling. It’s been a busy week.

This was published in the Sunday Guardian, here.

 

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It’s impossible to write an innocent review of Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling after the events of these last few days. We all know why it’s being reviewed, why it’s at the top of the Amazon bestselling charts at the moment—last week it was revealed that Galbraith was a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. Rowling apparently submitted the manuscript anonymously; it was rejected by some publishers before being picked up by Sphere. Rowling seems to have wanted to write free of the weight of expectation her name carries with it. That, of course, is no longer an option. That weight of expectation has now fallen heavily upon the book. It has become the focus of editorials about the State of Publishing (capital letters required) all week, either because it’s fascinating that critics, not knowing who its author was, should have given it positive reviews (and what are the implications of that?) or because it is somehow supposed to be meaningful news that the hardback sales of a book by an unknown, barely-promoted debut author should not have been in the thousands. Whatever one says about The Cuckoo’s Calling thus has a meaning that goes beyond the book itself. The completely objective review is probably a myth, but rarely is a book so heavily outweighed by its own context. I might not have read this book and certainly wouldn’t be reviewing it were it not for the revelation of Rowling’s secret authorship.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a crime novel in five acts, centred around the death of the supermodel Lula Landry. Lula’s mysterious fall from her balcony is thought to be suicide, but her brother is not convinced. He hires private detective Cormoran Strike to find out whether his sister was really murdered. Strike must also sort out his relationship with his new temporary secretary who is efficient, attractive, and more interested in the case than she is in him.

This is a book that places itself very solidly in its specific genre tradition. Cormoran Strike is the classic private eye in his shabby office in a run-down building; approaching middle-age, overweight and in possession of a prosthetic leg (as a result of his time in the army), and currently homeless as a result of the end of his marriage. He is also, for some reason, irresistible to beautiful women. In some ways it’s as if someone had tried to transpose a Raymond Chandler novel upon London. This sits rather uneasily with the very definitely twenty-first century feel of much of the plot’s London setting; the young musician who avoids the paparazzi by putting on a wolf’s mask, the exciting fashion design and the use of google search in the crime-solving business. There are no smartphones; perhaps that would be a step too far.

Since we can’t un-know its author, it’s inevitable for those of us who came to the book too late to look at it in the context of Rowling’s earlier work. Some of the similarities are superficial, such as the use of the epigraph (all in Latin in this book) at the beginning of each part of the work. The delight in naming; Cormoran Strike and Lula Landry would not sound out of place in a Harry Potter book. Eager internet commenters have already pointed out that Rowling’s chosen pseudonym translates to “Fame-bright” “British stranger”.

Rowling’s strength has always been in telling a story and moving a plot along. Most of the characters in The Cuckoo’s Calling slot neatly into type, but this doesn’t hinder the novel. The genre works in Galbraith/ Rowling’s favour here; the book does nothing particularly new, but manages to be a solid, satisfying crime novel. It is interrupted on occasion by awkward prose, as when Galbraith/ Rowling describes a young man as “a masterpiece produced by an indecipherable cocktail of races” (he kindly deciphers said ancestral cocktail for us a page or so later) or when she literally describes characters in terms of feline orifices (“when her mouth puckered into hard little lines around the cigarette, it looked like a cat’s anus”). But moments this spectacular are few and far between.

We’ll never know now whether, given time, word of mouth and the more affordable prices of paperbacks, Robert Galbraith would have built up a dedicated fan following of his own. I suspect he might have; The Cuckoo’s Calling is as good as or better than many popular mystery series. I might not have read the first Cormoran Strike book before I knew who its author was but I think I may be looking forward to the second.

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