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Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling by JK Rowling

It happens very rarely that I read contemporary fiction, whether it is romance, family drama, or even crime thrillers. I have never read JK Rowling, and it basically means I have never read any of the Harry Potter books. Even when I choose to read contemporary fiction, I normally choose writers I have read before, for instance Zadie Smith or Salman Rushdie. I decided to read The Cuckoo’s Calling because of two reasons: JK Rowling has written it under the name of Robert Galbraith and this cover was blown recently and the news was all over the Internet. So I just got curious, and since it is so easy to purchase a book these days, I logged into my Amazon.com account and downloaded the book within a couple of minutes. Hence this review.

The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo’s Calling by JK Rowling

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a quintessential whodunnit novel of the most conventional sense. It also follows the format of the dishevelled and unsuccessful detective featured in many novels of the same genre. No, no, this is not a spoiler alert and I’m not going to reveal what happens and who is the actual murder, and yes, there is a murder that needs to be solved.

It’s a laid-back narrative, devoid of the usual blood and gore that you expect of Western, especially American detective novels. It moves at a slow pace and the writing style is exactly the opposite of the reams of writing advice you come across these days.

The most interesting aspect of the novel, of course, is the central character, Cormoran Strike, 35ish, slightly overweight, full of body hair, the detective, formerly in the British Army, who is an amputee, and uses a prosthetic leg. Since I haven’t read many detective novels save for Sherlock Holmes and a few sprinklings of Agatha Christie I am not aware of any major characters who have been disabled and the plot moves accordingly. Yes, Somerset Maugham has a clubfoot hero in Of Human Bondage but then it is not a detective novel.

Within the first two paragraphs, if I’m not mistaken, a supermodel called Lula Landry dies after falling from her balcony. In fact this is where the story begins – she has already fallen and lying dead in the snow with the paparazzi having a field day.

She was an adopted child. In fact, every child of that family was adopted. Although there is some suspicious CCTV footage, the police makes it into a suicide case. The elder brother of the deceased supermodel thinks otherwise. He hires a detective, Strike, who has been recently thrown out by the woman he has been living with for the past 15 years, is living in his office, and who has a pile of bills to pay. The detective was, when he was a child, a friend of the elder brother of the brother (adopted, of course) who wants to find out who killed his sister. To instil a further sense of personal angst, the detective is an illegitimate child of an ageing pop star born of a super groupie – this is how he is known and recognised in his circle, and he detests that.

Since most detectives have an assistant, our this detective too has a woman assistant who secretly cherishes the dream of becoming a detective herself. She works as a temporary with her (sent by the eponymous Temporary Solutions) and his employer is never sure whether he can afford her not. She is highly intelligent, takes initiative and has great snooping tendencies that prove quite useful to the detective Strike.

In the end, Strike not only proves that it wasn’t a suicide but murder, he also figures out who is the culprit. He takes lots of interviews. In fact more than 50% of the plot revolves around he taking interviews of various people involved with the supermodel directly or indirectly. Sometimes the talk seems aimless, but eventually everything fits like a jigsaw puzzle.

Doubtless to say JK Rowling is a good writer. Having written seven Harry Potter books and another non-HP book that I haven’t read, she has the needed experience and it shows through. Her style, although it might be quite different from what she has been writing so far, is quite convincing. If it hadn’t been revealed that Robert Galbraith is actually JK Rowling, to an unassuming reader, the writer would have sounded very impressive for “his” first book.

Lots of narrative, lots of dialogues, but it’s a good read. In the end it turns out to be a typical Sherlock Holmes. Remember the way Sherlock Holmes gives a detailed account of how the crime was committed, while it was committed and what were the scores of circumstances around the crime, and everybody is standing, soaking in every word and reacting in their individual manners. The same happens in this novel. The only thing is, in Sherlock Holmes novels many things seem conjectures. In The Cuckoo’s Calling JK Rowling does a good job by leaving nothing to conjecture and giving solid proofs of why Strike thinks the way he does.

Why did JK Rowling write the book under an assumed name, Robert Galbraith? There might have been many reasons. After enjoying so much fame it must be fun writing in anonymity. Maybe she wanted to distance herself from her present audience. Maybe she wanted her readers to read the book without biases – after all she is a children’s author. Or maybe she didn’t want people to know that the writer was actually a female. Many female writers in the past have written with a male nom de plume. Anyway, whatever was a reason, it worked – maybe it was all preplanned; first writing under an assumed name, and then someone spilling the beans causing massive controversy. I mean, knowing that she has been writing a series of Harry Potter books, I would have never bought The Cuckoo’s Calling. I bought it only because of the controversy surrounding it and my curiosity got the better of me. But it was a good decision. The next time she publishes a similar book under her real name, I will read it.