The Cuckoo’s Calling
Bloody hell, this is good.
To some, this may come as a surprise. You can argue that, based on the Harry Potter series, that J.K.’s strengths are world-building and plot, even say that this is proved by The Casual Vacancy which, a vaguely political Aga-Saga, literally lacked the magic. So much is tied to J.K.’s name that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to judge her writing on merit alone. And we expect more of the great J.K., with eight full-length novels under her belt, than we do from a first novel from an anonymous author; there is also a lot more mileage in putting the boot into the most printed author on the planet than a never-previously published former soldier. This is more than a reaction than a review as it’s not, as a consequence, really possible to judge The Cuckoo’s Calling alone after finding out Galbraith’s real identity. But what’s certain is that this is a good novel, and a decent detective story.
‘Well that’s what I thought,’ said Strike. ‘But I’m no expert on women and their clothes.’
The links to Rowling’s real identity are subtle, and quite hard to spot: the occasional not-quite-jibes at Gordon Brown become slightly more amusing in this light, while the names have the same fairy-tale eloquence that we saw in Harry Potter. This time, the joy is that it needs explaining how the characters came by them. Watch for the explanations as they appear.
[It is worth taking some time to try and find these before you read on, but…] As well as the use of stereotypical names, such as a plain secretary called Alison and a working-class girl called Rochelle, the novel features: Cormoran Strike, named after two predatory birds, the latter of which with the obvious double-meaning, who is assisted by a secretary named Robin (and she gets a joke associated with her name in the first few pages). Lula’s useless boyfriend gets the name Duffield, while we get the best placeholder name imaginable with the designer Guy Somé (flip the words around). An extremely unpleasant film producer is given the name Bestigui (Beastie-guy). Pushing the boat out a bit, the aristocratic guardian of Lula’s secrets is called Ciara (Tiara) Porter. Lula Landry herself takes the nickname ‘Cuckoo’, which gives the novel a name and the eventual solution a metaphor.
And it may well be J.K’s best piece of character yet. You could see quite a few of Rowling’s opinions of humanity in The Casual Vacancy, but it was a political novel so the audience were bored. In The Cuckoo’s Calling, her observations are secondary to the detective story, and consequently become a pleasure. The portrayal of the world of ‘models, rappers, fashion designers, druggies and illicit liasons’ is actually fairly complimentary; it’s in the portrayal of the hereditary rich that Galbraith really begins to snarl. It’s a joy to watch.
The same is true of the descriptions. Seeing the bulky ex-military Strike walking among the thin and industrious assistants of a fashion designer, we get the line,
‘Strike felt abnormally huge and hairy; a woolly mammoth attempting to blend in amongst capuchin monkeys.’
‘Thread eyebrows. It’s like plucking, but with threads.’
Strike could not imagine how this worked. (Woman writing! Woman writing!)
While ‘we can tell a woman wrote it because of the descriptions of clothes’ is overstating the case, it is true that clothes are better described than Strike’s military past, which never quite rings true or seems real. Strike himself is the stereotypical tough damaged hero with money troubles, woman troubles, a streak of cynicism as long as the Thames and a heart as big as the Ritz, but he’s a cipher compared to the cast who surround him. Equally, something about Charlotte, Strike’s ex-fiancée, doesn’t quite seem right, but then she is, by design, a spectre. But it’s in the nature of detective novels that the detective isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the most interesting, as they’re the reader’s way of observing the interplay of character that culminates in murder.
Harry Potter had a bland lead because he was a normal way in to a very strange world populated by very strange characters, learning as the reader did. The Cuckoo’s Calling features the world of high fashion and higher money, not quite as odd as that of witches and wizards, but still the detective needs to be a more ordinary outsider. Strike’s past is implausible and he’s not very interesting, but he’s an inappropriate way to judge Galbraith’s skill with character. Strike’s new secretary Robin acts as the audience identification everywoman, but Galbraith makes her a very charming one and a character in her own right. If we call the city a character, then London here is not quite as well-drawn as it is in some other novels (read Rivers of London for how to do the city justice). It’s a novel set in London, not a London novel, but the sparkling bright mindset of the dying days of New Labour is brilliantly evoked.
But the rest of the cast more than make up for these quibbles: it may even be possible to ascertain Galbraith’s gender by the descriptions of women alone. Perhaps the best example of this is the depiction of selfish, generous, loving, desperate for love, loyal, untrustworthy Lula Landry, and it’s a testament to Galbraith’s skill with character that we know and understand all this is in spite of the fact that we never meet her alive. The novel could have done with more twists roundabout the middle, where we spend a long time running round London simply so (we suspect) Galbraith can spend more time with his characters. Like ever-so-many, the beginning is more interesting than the end, and the eventual explanation is a twist that we’ve seen before. Coupled with one major logical flaw that is acknowledged but not explained. But the motive, so so rarely for modern crime novels, is both logical and beautifully poetic at the same time.
Seen in light of J.K.’s other work, it’s good. It doesn’t have the imagination of Harry Potter, the political drive of The Casual Vacancy, and lacks the breadth of both. But it’s a solid detective novel, a good piece of writing and, overall, a delightful character piece. Read and enjoy.