The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith

>> Monday, February 22, 2016

TITLE: The Cuckoo's Calling
AUTHOR: Robert Galbraith

PAGES: 464
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown

SETTING: Contemporary UK
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Starts Cormoran Strike series

After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.

Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, thelegendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

You may think you know detectives, but you've never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you've never seen them under an investigation like this.
I'm now up to book 3 in this series and have quite a bit to say about it, so I thought I'd best dig out my half-written reviews of books 1 and 2 and finish them up first.

I bought this pretty much straight after reading the article revealing it had been written by JK Rowling. Yes, I'm one of the millions who did that. My audible credit had just come in so I immediately spent it. I hadn't heard of The Cuckoo's Calling at all before that, and even if I had, I'm not sure I would have thought it was my sort of thing. Hard-bitten PI, crime set in the celebrity world... that doesn't immediately appeal. Well, I would have been completely wrong, because I loved this.

At first glance, the plot is nothing special: PI Cormoran Strike is hired to investigate the death of a model, which the police have ruled a suicide and the woman's brother is convinced was murder. What is special, though, is the way it's executed.

First off, the characters are great. Cormoran Strike is a struggling PI trying to keep his business going after a bad breakup. His cases tend to be more towards the humdrum end (think following cheating spouses), so this is a big opportunity to do something more interesting (and well paid; he doesn't even get that many jealous spouses these days).

Strike's got an interesting past: his mother was a 1970s supergroupie and his father a huge rock star (I pictured a Mick Jagger-type figure). Strike was never really acknowledged by his father, so he was raised in a succession of squalid squats. There followed a career in the military police and a deployment to Afghanistan, during which an IED blew up a vehicle Strike was in, taking one of his legs.

That almost sounds like a bit too much, doesn't it? Like the character is not interesting enough to stand on his own and needs an outlandish past to make him worth the reader's attention? And yet it works wonderfully and feels completely organic. Strike is a fully realised character, and his family and military background make complete sense for the person he is. And I particularly liked how Galbraith deals with the issue of his amputated leg. It's something that has informed who Strike is now, but it's only a part of a multi-faceted character, even though it's clearly a bloody daily inconvenience to him and not something he can easily forget. Anyway, Strike is one of the most interesting characters I've read in the last few years, and I knew after only a few pages that I wanted more of him.

The other main character in this series is Robin Ellacott, whom Strike almost accidentally hires as a temporary secretary at the beginning of the book. Robin is a young woman trying to build a career after dropping out of university. She is fascinated by PI work (to the displeasure of her selfish arsehole of a boyfriend, who expects her to get a well-paid and respectable job in PR that will reflect well on him) and gets involved in the case, showing tremendous common sense and resourcefulness. Now, with the benefit of hindsight and having read all three books already, I can say that Robin is quite as well-rounded a character as Strike... but not just yet in this book. Here she's merely really promising, as is her relationship with Strike. It's clear these two click right from the start, and there is plenty of respect and non-sexual chemistry there.

The crime was not something that I found particularly fascinating, but the process of investigation was. It's not a particularly pacy book; there's quite a bit of step-by-step interview, information-gathering, deduction, rinse and repeat. But Galbraith somehow managed to make it gripping. And, coming back to my point of the previous paragraphs, the people we met along the way of the investigation were fabulously drawn, even the ones we meet only briefly and have only bit parts. More than anything, this reminded me of JD Robb's In Death series. Both here and in those books I just relish the prospect of meeting a new character, even if it's just someone who will be briefly interviewed and then forgotten.

I also, surprisingly for me, quite liked the celebrity angle. That world feels real as well, and that's not a given (I'm reading a mystery just now where the rich and famous feel preposterous and cartoonish). Just look at scenes like one where Strike is accompanying someone really famous into a fashionable club and they are pounced upon by paparazzi. The little details there (what it feels like to go out and be suddenly blinded by tens of powerful camera flashes, what it feels like to be mobbed) were amazing. Well, I wish I could say I would have noticed if I hadn't known Rowling was the author, but probably not!

Last, and not least, the story here just flows like crazy. As I said, it's not fast-paced, but it wraps you up and engages you and moves you forward. This was a really good start to the series!


AUDIOBOOK NOTES: The narrator is absolutely brilliant. The voice he does for strike suits the character to a t... a bit rough and gruff, but kind, and he's even pretty good with female voices!


meljean brook 22 February 2016 at 19:56  

I am really, really enjoying this series. And, yes -- although I like the process of the investigations, the characters (main and secondary) are what keep me coming back. The mysteries are just okay but the rest is really great. Everyone is drawn with such a strong and deft hand.

Which reminds me that I need to read The Casual Vacancy at some point.

Darlynne 23 February 2016 at 17:07  

I've only read the first book and loved it, the other two are in the pile. Agreed the characters are the key, but I really enjoyed the "whodunnit" aspect; it had a very classic, old school mystery feel.

Rosario 24 February 2016 at 06:34  

Meljean: I'd be very interested in what you make of The Casual Vacancy. My instinct is that it might not resonate so much outside of Britain, since it's very much about how the way society feels here has changed since the financial crisis and the Tories came to power. I might be wrong, though!

Darlynne: I always felt her Harry Potter books had pretty good whodunnits in them as well. I think she's actually quoted Agatha Christie as an influence.

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