On Monday and Tuesday this week, just in time for it's famous author's birthday today, I read 'The Cuckoo's Calling'. There can be few members of the news-consuming public who haven't heard the recent story that this crime novel, published in April under the name of Robert Galbraith, was actually written by the world's richest and possibly most famous author, J. K. Rowling. After a nasty period during which sceptics proclaimed that the leak of this information was undoubtedly a marketing ploy undertaken by either Rowling herself or her publishers, it was announced that the information actually reached the public domain through the indiscretion of a lawyer, who let the secret slip to a personal friend.
In my opinion, it's unfortunate that the truth of the novel's authorship has been revealed at such an early stage - it would have been very interesting to see whether it could have become a success based on its own merits, and whether its popularity would have taken another book or two to really gather momentum. The subject also provokes some thought about a publishing environment in which a debut by an unknown author which garners universally high reviews from a few critics and other crime authors still only sells a few hundred copies. What hope is there for authors of similarly accomplished novels who don't happen to have a famous name to fall back on? Anyway, I like to think that word-of-mouth would have built over the course of the next couple of years for this, as was the case with Harry Potter, and that it could have been a success even without the recent revelations. Because this is a novel that always deserved success.
I had unwittingly been preparing very well for reading 'The Cuckoo's Calling' by almost
exclusively reading Agatha Christie for the last few weeks. Declan Burke says in his Irish Times review that 'Rowling is reported to be a fan of the Golden Age of British crime fiction as written by Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, and Dorothy L Sayers' and I agree that this is very much a classic puzzle-solving detective mystery in the vein of those. I was certainly pleased that any violence depicted bears a closer relationship to those classics than to more modern, and more gruesome, novels.
Briefly (since I know it would have been next to impossible not to have read a review of this already somewhere), Cormoran Strike is a private detective who is down to his last chance. He's just left his girlfriend so he's living in his office, he's deeply in debt, his business is failing due to lack of custom, and his prosthetic lower leg is making life difficult. One Monday morning, Robin Ellacott turns up, sent as a temp secretary by the agency to work for him for a week. She is thrilled by the sign on the door - 'Private Detective' - sensing possibilities for more exciting work than endless photocopying and filing. Not long after she arrives, something very unusual happens - a new client presents himself, asking Strike to investigate the sudden death of his sister, supermodel Lula Landry, three months previously. Robin plays the efficient secretary and offers refreshment to both Strike and his client, and it is only as she leaves the room having taken an order from each man that Strike remembers 'that he did not have any coffee, sugar or, indeed, cups.' Strike initially agrees to investigate the case due to presence of ready money, and at double his usual rate, but he quickly finds his innate sense of justice and his conscience leading him onwards.
While I'm a huge Harry Potter fan, I admit that I did not particularly enjoy Rowling's literary fiction offering last year 'The Casual Vacancy', so it wasn't an absolutely foregone conclusion that I would like this one. However, Rowling's newest creations are enormously interesting and appealing - I felt myself invested in the characters by the time I was 20 pages into the novel. While the narrative is as satisfyingly complex as a Poirot mystery and as thrilling, it never feels as if characterisation, character development, beautiful language and description have been sacrificed to serve a fast-moving plot. Indeed, I felt that 'The Cuckoo's Calling' had the largest cast of fully fleshed-out characters that I've read in a while. Strike and his sidekick Robin make an unlikely but thoroughly fascinating and entertaining pair, so I'm delighted to read that Rowling has reportedly already finished the sequel, which will be published next year.
Go forth and read, folks!