The Story: The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first of the Cormoran Strike novels by Robert Galbraith (pseudonym for J.K. Rowling), introduces readers to the titular Cormoran Strike, a disabled, down-on-his-luck private detective. Just when his life is at its lowest point, John Bristow, brother to the famous supermodel Lula Landry, comes to him for help. While Landry’s tragic death was ruled a suicide, Bristow believes his sister didn’t take her own life but, instead, was murdered. Cormoran agrees to take the case, which throws him headfirst into a world of celebrity and hedonism. But all of the bright, flashing lights of fame just might conceal killers in the shadows.
My Take: I seemed to have perused the gamut of Rowling’s writings, from the Harry Potter series; to her standalone work of general fiction, The Casual Vacancy; and now her first foray into adult crime fiction, The Cuckoo’s Calling (which was originally published under a male pseudonym). Much like with The Casual Vacancy, after I found out she had penned another book (well, actually after it had leaked that “Mr. Galbraith” was actually Ms. Rowling), I was excited to see what this new story would entail. Again, I knew it wasn’t fantasy but I have a soft spot for good detective fiction as the Sherlock Holmes and the Nero Wolfe mystery novels and stories are among some of my favorite reads.
I will say from the start that this book held my interest longer than The Casual Vacancy did as this novel’s principle cast was smaller in comparison and the plot focuses chiefly on one character (i.e. detective Cormoran Strike); whereas The Casual Vacancy was a bit too scattered in its principle storyline for me to really connect with. The mystery element here is well-paced and mildly interesting but it’s nothing you wouldn’t find in a story within a similar vein. The purpose of the story, I felt, was to concentrate on the darker side of a life of fame and fortune, something our less-than-pristine hero, Cormoran, knows next to nothing about. To his credit, Cormoran is the proverbial fish out of water as he rubs shoulders and makes nice with folks he would never meet otherwise – music moguls, supermodels, and the like. At first, he seems able to hold his own but his resolve slowly begins to erode as he finds himself drawn into some rather dark places.
The type of fame-and-fortunes lifestyle we encounter in this novel is not of the classy, old Hollywood set but more like the “Beautiful Dirty Rich” kind (yes, for some reason that song by Lady Gaga immediately popped into my head while reading parts of this book). These celebrity characters are all young people (20s and 30s) who have made their claim to fame in a variety of ways, and some of whom may not have done anything productive at all (kind of like some “celebrities” today – Kim K. for instance? Name me one productive, artistic, contributing thing she has done and, no, making a sex tape and marrying Kanye West doesn’t count). These characters have seemingly been sucked into a cesspool of drugs, partying, sex, and the illusion of glamor and none of them really have any legitimate reason to be in the public eye other than they’re attractive, young, and have money. Granted, Lula is an actress but she’s more of a scandalous socialite than a silver screen starlet. While the novel never makes this plain (at least not enough for my liking), what I took away in terms of an overall moral was that fame is not a shield from life nor an ivory tower. The rich and famous in this novel might believe they are above it all and immune to trouble, yet the fact they exist in the public eye only means they are more exposed to temptations. While the celebrity world Rowling creates certainly feels modernized, I was left wishing more commentary – even on a subtle level – could have been made about the dangers of desiring fame without merit.
In time, Cormoran gets caught up in this glassy-eyed, glamorous world but manages to pull himself together in time to solve the case. To be fair, and maybe because I’ve read so many mystery books over the years that I know how to spot it, the chief suspect was fairly easy to figure out early on. Thus, the actual crime-solving aspect of the story didn’t hold my interest as much as seeing how far Cormoran would let himself go to catch a potential killer. His witnessing of and descent into hedonism and immoral behavior is akin to what the characters in The Casual Vacancy partook in, minus any over-reaching consequences or subtle lessons that a life of sex, drugs, and fame is not ultimately fulfilling. For that, I will say that The Casual Vacancy at least teaches a morality lesson using a positive negative: by depicting negative values and situations that come with negative consequences, a positive lesson presented to readers is that this isn’t an ideal way to live. In contrast, Cormoran gets caught up in the high life for a little while but doesn’t have any take away lessons in the wake of it all other than he doesn’t belong there, hence why I say his escapades, which are fairly tame, occur without consequence, meaning neither Cormoran nor the reader learn any lessons, subtle or otherwise, about living a selfish, devil-may-care lifestyle. In fact, Cormoran enters this dark world of fame, does some mild carousing, and exits rather easily. Even though I’m always willing to suspend my disbelief, this sequence of events didn’t ring entirely realistic to me even though the novel is stark realism.
That’s not the only element in this novel that caused me to pause and not give it a rousing round of applause. Again, since this is, first and foremost, detective fiction, the case itself was easy to solve long before the final reveal, so the whole mystery element was a bit humdrum for me. (But, again, this might just be because I’ve read so many books similar to this as opposed to any actual weaknesses of plot.) Likewise, Cormoran isn’t that memorable of a character, especially to serve as the series’ figurehead. Granted, he’s not poorly-developed nor is he a trope and his sometimes off-kilter methods can be amusing. He simply lacks the distinguishing hallmarks of, say, Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe in terms of personality, quirks, habits, and even his modus operandi. Cormoran is a dedicated detective and has a physical handicap, but personality-wise and in the way he tackles his work, nothing stands out as a unique signature for his character, much unlike Holmes’ penchant for boxing and playing the violin or Wolfe’s adoration of food and orchids. Cormoran does have a cool, original name though, but you need a cool, original personality to back up a cool, original name.
Seeing as this is a series (I believe), the first book is always the deciding factor for me on whether or not I continue to peruse subsequent books. So would I read any of the follow-up novels?
Sadly, I don’t think so, chiefly because these types of books tend to repeat their formulas and Cormoran simply lacks a personal signature as a detective, so it’s hard to get behind him as a leading character. There is nothing to set him apart from other generic mystery/crime figures, which is a bit of a shame because I was expecting a rather high bar story from Rowling. Again, I wouldn’t cite this as a terrible book (as I doubt Rowling could pen anything genuinely terrible): it was simply lackluster for me and hence why I’m 97.5% certain I wouldn’t read any subsequent titles. But seeing as it’s Rowling, there is a slim chance that I might, but not any time soon.
In closing – and this is just a bit of nitpicking on my part – I actually like Rowling’s fantasy novels better than her general fiction. I know I’m being biased in saying that because a). I chiefly read speculative fiction and b). Harry Potter is one of the best fantasy series since sliced bread. But her fantasy novels possessed an inner warmth and subtle wonder about them that her general fiction lacks. Naturally, more extensive world-building and long-term plot development come with fantasy series. But works such as The Casual Vacancy and The Cuckoo’s Calling are stories of cold, stark realism and devoid of any charm, softer sentiments, or wonder.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think every story needs to be rainbows, butterflies, and sunshine. I have some favorite books that are not cheery for most of the time; but I suppose the difference is that, in those stories, things turn out all right as they offer good, satisfying endings to their respective characters. The same is certainly true for, by way of example, the Harry Potter books: they venture into some very dark places but they don’t stay dark. So while some readers might love Rowling’s new direction in her general fiction works, they just haven’t been my cup of tea because they tend to travel into the darkness and rarely venture back out into the light of day. In the same way, The Cuckoo’s Calling traverses down dim alleyways of the lives of the rich, young, and famous, yet it reemerges no brighter or cheerier than it did before its descent.
Content: [Note: Much like The Casual Vacancy, The Cuckoo’s Calling is for adults only and not for the younger Harry Potter audience.]
Language -There is frequent strong language (including numerous f-words) though it isn’t pervasive.
Violence – This novel focuses on a violent crime thought it doesn’t linger on graphic details, but it’s still grittier than the murders/suicides you’d encounter in old-school detective fiction.
Sexual Content – Certain characters’ sexual exploits are discussed but not in graphic detail though Cormoran eventually succumbs to the seductive wiles of a female celebrity. I certainly wouldn’t label this book strong in the sexual/sensual department, but if you were put off by some of the content issues in The Casual Vacancy, then you might not enjoy this read either.
Overall, The Cuckoo’s Calling is Rowling’s attempt to not be typecast into just one genre (i.e. fantasy), which is fine and I respect her for that. However, I tend to think there is more heart, soul, and imagination in her fantasy works than her general fiction. I doubt she could ever pen anything I would label as poor or in poor taste, but I sense only fans of crime fiction will thoroughly enjoy this pick. For casual readers, or persons still reeling over Rowling’s departure from fantasy, this might be a pass.