The Cuckoo’s Calling is J.K. Rowling’s first foray into crime fiction, written under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. The pseudonym only worked successfully for a couple of months before J.K. Rowling was revealed to be the true author, and once that information was leaked it automatically flew to the top of the bestseller lists. My copy even says on the cover ‘written by J.K. Rowling under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith’, which really makes me wonder why they even bothered to keep the pseudonym at all by that point. I can completely understand why J.K. Rowling chose to use a different name though. I said during my review of The Casual Vacancy that it would be her next published book which would be the real test of her skill as a writer, because people bought The Casual Vacancy out of curiosity. Everyone was intrigued to see how her writing stood up without the world of Harry Potter for the reader to immerse themselves in, but the real test would be whether readers continued to buy her books after experimenting with The Casual Vacancy. I do feel sorry for her that she was outed as the real author so quickly, because I think it was a really interesting idea to see whether her writing would be popular without her name being attached to it, and the book was doing moderately well for a debut novel before the reveal was made. It even had a positive quote on the cover from Val McDermid, who is an extremely experienced and popular crime writer and would surely know what she was looking for in the genre. Of course, there are people who believe that she knew J.K Rowling had written the book all along, but she states otherwise and I think we should take her word on that.
The Cuckoo’s Calling features a private detective, Cormoran Strike, who is a fairly grumpy man under a lot of pressure. He owes a lot of money which he can’t afford to pay back, he’s just split up from his girlfriend, and he’s in a lot of pain (he lost part of his leg in the Afghan war). He sort of accidentally gains a secretary/PA, Robin, who he can’t really afford to keep but she makes his business seem a lot more professional. His luck comes through when he is hired by John Bristow to find the killer of his adopted half-sister, the famous model Lula Landry, and Strike is hoping the pay-out on the case will solve the majority of his problems, or at least keep them at bay for a while.
I don’t read a lot of crime fiction novels, which is perhaps something I should change because I do really enjoy them. I thought the actual storyline was quite compelling, and I did want to keep reading to find out who the real killer was. I didn’t manage to solve the puzzle myself, which is something which I generally like because it’s quite fun to be left guessing until the last minute and then be surprised with the big reveal. Really skilled crime writers will manage to surprise the reader with the murderer’s identity, but will still have provided clues along the way which the reader only recognises were clues once they know who the murderer is. I think it’s quite a tricky thing to achieve without making it obvious, but I think that’s the real goal to aim for in crime fiction (and I think my mum would agree with that, and she reads an awful lot of crime fiction). I didn’t guess who Lula Landry’s killer was, which is a good thing, but on reflection I think I didn’t guess it because it was perhaps all a little daft. I think Strike would need to rely on the confession of the killer to secure a conviction, because I don’t think there was enough evidence to prove what was eventually revealed, which is probably why I couldn’t guess it in the first place. (Well, that and the fact that I’m incompetent). The actual reveal itself and the reaction of the killer was also extremely over the top in a quite ridiculous way, and could perhaps have done with being toned down a bit. I can understand that these kinds of situations call for drama and tension, but that particular section wasn’t very believable for me.
In terms of the writing itself, it had typical J.K. Rowling style. I’ve said before that J.K. Rowling’s skill lies more in her amazing storytelling and the wonderful worlds she builds rather than in her actual physical writing, and that is something that showed through a bit here. As much as it pains me to say it, I don’t think she will ever write anything quite as compelling or absorbing as the Harry Potter series, and for that reason her writing will always stand out for scrutiny more in her other works because the stories can’t carry us away and distract us in the same manner. The story itself of The Cuckoo’s Calling was good, but the writing did occasionally fall short. I’m sure there was a section where J.K. Rowling described something as ‘looming as large as the national debt’, and that was definitely a cringe moment for me. On the whole it was alright, but she did occasionally drop clangers like that which were all too obviously awkward.
I wasn’t massively keen on the use of pop culture to provide a solid time and place setting either. There were references to current songs and politicians, and of course that looming national debt, and I’m not sure it was necessary. I can completely understand why she did it because it did really firmly ground the story in a specific time, but I wonder if it will make it seem a bit dated further down the line whereas without those references the book could remain timeless in setting, to an extent. That’s very much a personal preference of mine and I could be completely wrong in saying that the book will become dated, but I just found it a bit odd at times to be immersed in a fictional story and then to stumble across a reference to a song I hear on the radio. I would have liked the story to have been a bit more removed from my ‘real world’, but I completely understand why she did it and I’m sure there will be some people who really enjoy spotting those pop culture references.
I’m intrigued to see what Strike gets up to next, so I’ll hopefully be reading The Silkworm soon. Obviously the majority of the cast of characters will change with each book and each investigation, but I wasn’t really too fussed about any of them except Strike. I liked the fact that he wasn’t exactly a ‘pleasant’ character. He was grumpy and irritable with quite poor personal hygiene, and could definitely be considered ‘rough around the edges’. I didn’t really understand the fuss about Robin though. I’m sure I’ve heard J.K. Rowling say that Robin is one of her favourite characters to write ever, and I just don’t get it. Maybe there’s more to her in the other books, but in The Cuckoo’s Calling she just seems very ordinary. Perhaps ordinary is a relief after years spent writing about witches and wizards, but I didn’t find anything particularly stand out or even memorable in Robin’s character, and I can’t work out for the life of me why she’d be ranked above a single character from the Harry Potter series in terms of how enjoyable she is to write about. It just doesn’t make sense to me. I’ll have high hopes for some strong character development in The Silkworm, because at the moment, frankly, Robin’s hardly anything to write home about.
On the whole I did really enjoy reading The Cuckoo’s Calling though, and I’ll definitely be carrying on with the series. To be honest, I don’t think there will ever be a J.K. Rowling book that I won’t buy. I don’t have the urge to rush out and buy them as soon as they’re released though, I wait for the paperbacks because it’s my preferred format, and I think I picked the first two up in Sainsbury’s for only £3.99 each. They are quite pretty though, especially The Cuckoo’s Calling which has a really pleasing colour palette. I’m sure J.K. Rowling has said she has ideas for a minimum of ten Cormoran Strike books so far, and while I’m sure I will buy and read them all for fear of missing out on any of her books, I do wonder whether my interest will be sustained for that long. I have every intention of reading The Silkworm, but it’s been a little while since I finished The Cuckoo’s Calling and I haven’t felt compelled to pick it up yet. I think the problem I have at the moment is that reading The Cuckoo’s Calling is just reading a book, but going on to read The Silkworm as well counts as reading a series, and once I’ve started a series I always have to see it through. It just feels like reading a new J.K. Rowling series will be such a huge commitment, because we all know how emotional and involved the experience of reading her last series was! Obviously the Cormoran Strike books aren’t anywhere near the same vein as Harry Potter, but because she hasn’t specified exactly how many books there will be yet I feel a bit wary about throwing myself into the series in case it ends up being absolutely huge and potentially bigger than the characters can sustain. Plus there’s always the opposite danger that I’ll grow to really, really love the series, and then she’ll take years to release the next book and I’ll feel like I’m constantly waiting. These are the dangers you face with J.K. Rowling though, and to be honest I wouldn’t have it any other way.
See also J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and read Book Vs. Film reviews of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or read previous Book Review featuring D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.