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by JK Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith
Mulholland, April 2013
484 pages
ISBN: 0316206849

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

As I write this, THE CUCKOO'S CALLING appears for the first time on the NY Times Best Seller list, nestled snugly between INFERNO, by Dan Brown (#2) and FIRST SIGHT by Danielle Steele (#4). It does even better digitally, coming in at number one. If that's an unusual way to start a review, it's because most of the buzz about THE CUCKOO'S CALLING and pretty much all of the sales have been generated not by what appears between the covers, but by what did not appear on the cover when the book was first published - the name of the author, JK Rowling. Instead, it was launched as a debut crime novel by "Robert Galbraith" with a nice little invented bio that has since vanished. As the work of Robert Galbraith, it too would have followed suit fairly quickly, since I understand that the original UK edition sold fewer than 750 copies.

It is difficult for a reviewer to detach the book from these circumstances. Should it have remained in its original obscurity? Why was it so overlooked? What does this all say about the business of publishing, and other weighty matters? I might have a word or two about the first question, but as for the rest....that's another essay.

The book is set in London and stars an ex-military policeman who left some of his right leg in Afghanistan. His name is Cormoran Strike and he has set himself up as a private investigator. The name is of course ridiculously flamboyant (I kept hearing it as Cormorant Shrike, possibly because of the avian title), and he is an outsized character, stoically bearing the sorts of wounds suffered by fictional private eyes, rejecting all sympathy, certainly all pity. He has just broken up with his girl friend and is reduced to sleeping on a camp bed in his office, an act of desperation he is at pains to conceal. As the novel opens two characters come into his life. First is Robin (another bird) Ellacott, a temp mistakenly dispatched by the agency. The second is John Bristow, a lawyer, who wants to hire Strike to investigate the death of his adopted sister Lula Landry, who plunged from the balcony of her flat three months earlier. The police call it suicide; Bristow is not so sure.

Lula was a supermodel and the world that Strike must investigate is the glittering culture of celebrity. It's a world he has at least a nodding acquaintance with, as he is himself the son of a rock star, though he's seldom met his father. Still the relationship itself is an entree, if not one he employs willingly. He spends a considerable portion of the next four hundred pages following up Lula's circle and becoming increasingly convinced that she did not indeed commit suicide. Robin, who at twenty-five is a few years older than Cordelia Gray, but almost as ready to ditch her conventional life for something with a bit more excitement, backs him up with some sound computer skills and a dose of motherly concern.

Strike's investigations are not confined to the darlings of the popular press, however. He also interviews a young woman whom Lula befriended when both were in rehab - Rochelle, whose speech is spelt oddly in order to indicate that she has an uneducated accent ("wuz" for "was," "usedta" for "used to,"), though whether the ear could discriminate the sounds is another matter. She omits a fair number of consonants too, most of them gees. Another puzzling problem of pronunciation recurs regarding the dress designer Guy Somé's first name. He apparently (and for reasons best known to himself) prefers "Ghee." Those less sophisticated rhyme it with "die." No one, however, says it as they do in France.

From all this, it might seem that there is not a lot to recommend A CUCKOO'S CALLING, but that is not quite the case. The praise on the back cover from the likes of Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, and Mike Cooper suggests that I am probably missing something here. JK Rowling's Harry Potter series succeeded not merely because she can tell a good story, but also because she took a conventional children's genre, the boarding school story, to places it had never been before and allowed it to grow up with its original readers. Here, she takes the conventions of the traditional, somewhat stately, crime novel (think Michael Innes), mixes in a private eye stoically bearing his secret physical and emotional wounds, and adds a dash of early PD James, and never quite manages to break new ground. But the old ground is pleasant enough. Except for the liberal use of the word "fucking," there is something sweetly nostalgic about Rowling's approach to crime. Whether she is altogether successful in the attempt to evoke the settled values and convictions of an earlier age while dealing with the quite contemporary issue of modern fame and the toll it takes on the famous is another question.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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