Since the news broke over the weekend that J. K. Rowling published a crime novel this past April called The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, I’ve seen lots of people on social media and blogs asking, “Anyone read this thing?” or “I want to read it but I’m hold #273 at the library!”
I’ve also seen people on Amazon and Barnes & Noble leave five-star reviews, clearly without having read it, saying, “I just found out J. K. Rowling wrote it so it must be fab!” More baffling are the one-star reviews saying, “Not gonna read this, psuedonyms [sic] are stupid.”
I read Cuckoo’s Calling in March when I got an ARC, so I thought I’d share some thoughts about it in case you’re considering reading it. I didn’t post a review at the time because I found it neither amazing nor terrible, and that type of book is hardest for me to write about. It’s difficult sometimes to expound on “meh.”
The two lead characters, a British war veteran named Cormoran Strike who lost his leg in Afghanistan, and his temp assistant, Robin, are likable characters. Strike is trying to make ends meet as a private investigator, and after breaking up with his girlfriend, he’s living in his office. Robin, newly engaged, is only supposed to work for Strike for two weeks, but she quickly establishes herself as an indispensable assistant. Strike tries to hide his homelessness from her, and she has the class and good manners to pretend she doesn’t know the truth.
Strike is hired by a man to look into the death of his supermodel sister, Lula, under mysterious circumstances—she either fell or was pushed over the railing of the balcony at her home. The mystery and the suspects were the weak points for me.
I didn’t like Lula’s brother, John, or anyone in the awfully cold and selfish family. It’s obvious all they care about is money, not Lula. And I didn’t have strong feelings for Lula, the club-going, rich, beautiful girl who wasn’t completely vapid but not that interesting, either. I wasn’t deeply invested in finding out what happened to her, because she didn’t seem to leave a huge emotional void with her death.
Adding to the detachment I felt was the omniscient narrative voice, not my favorite device because I find it too impersonal. Only Tom Perrotta’s Little Children comes to mind right now as an example of where it’s used to great effect. Feeling disconnected from most of the characters, I almost stopped reading several times (the narrative could’ve been tightened, too), but what got me through it was wanting to see if Robin manages to find a way to stay at the agency. She doesn’t want to leave, you see, but Strike can’t afford an assistant.
This isn’t to say sexual tension exists between the two because, refreshingly, it doesn’t. Their relationship is more akin to the one between Della Street and Perry Mason in the Erle Stanley Gardner novels, in which the extremely efficient assistant is just as sharp, if not sometimes sharper, than her boss. If this example seems dated, that’s because there’s something sweetly chaste and retro about the dynamic between Robin and Strike.
The conclusion I arrived at the end—which was predictable, since I’d guessed the villain’s identity before then—was that I’d probably read more books in the series (Little, Brown has confirmed the next installment drops next summer) for Strike and Robin, but they wouldn’t be top of my TBR list.
The writing style is very different from the Harry Potter books, so don’t expect anything like that. I love the HP books and have read some of them more than once, but did not have any inkling Rowling wrote Cuckoo’s Calling. I find it admirable that she’s such a versatile writer, even if this style was less engaging for me. Some authors use the same techniques over and over, to the point their books become formulaic.