Fiction · reading

The Cuckoo’s Calling by J.K. Rowling (written as Robert Galbraith)

“Why were you born when the snow was falling?
You should have come to the cuckoo’s calling…
…Why did you die when the lambs went cropping?
You should have died at the apples’ dropping”

– A Dirge, Christina G. Rossetti

When the most beautiful model in London falls to her death from the third floor balcony of her swanky apartment at one-thirty on a snowy night, the media and police alike are quick to write it off as suicide. After all, she had been in and out of rehab for a drug addiction and her bipolar disorder. Her brother however, isn’t convinced that she was suicidal and something is refusing to add up in his head. So he approaches private detective Cormoran Strike to investigate.
Reeling under the bulk of a loan he cannot repay, a rent he is struggling to meet and a newly-appointed temporary secretary Robin who is so efficient, he is having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that he cannot afford her, Cormoran Strike’s past is checkered with ghosts. When he is approached with the case he is quite sure there isn’t much he can do but the money seems lucrative enough for him to agree to investigate the circumstances. As he starts to delve into the model Lula Landry’s life and circumstances however, he starts to realize that something is wrong. As he finds himself falling into her shoes, a new story begins to emerge. Soon there will be no turning back for him.

When I first heard about this phenomenon of Ms Rowling having written a book under a pen name, just to see how her book will be received outside the circle of fame Harry Potter has necessarily tagged on to her, I was impressed beyond belief. I have always maintained that she did a very brave thing by renouncing her continued Harry Potter legacy and shifting to other things. I loved The Casual Vacancy for that reason (and also for the fact that it was a book worth loving in it’s own right) and here again I feel nothing but adulation for the woman who refuses to live in the past and strives to explore different genres. For writers this is often very hard to do when they taste success in a particular area of writing, they often feel compelled to stick to their zone and keep their feet firmly planted on the ground. For the renowned author of such staggering bestsellers, this task must be doubly difficult. Spin-offs from the Potter franchise could arguably support her for the rest of her (and her children and grandchildren’s) natural life in luxury and turning her pen into a different genre is a very creative move.

Ms Rowling’s crime writing is engaging but conventional. Her hero carries the baggage  of failed relationships and a disturbing childhood along with a briefly haunting spell in the army. Despite the similarities you can draw between this and various other troubled detective protagonists over the years, there is a freshness to Cormoran Strike. Beginning with his unusual name (a personal penchant of Rowling’s), Strike is an emboldened war veteran who lives out of his office due to a lack of habitat and money, and limps on a prosthetic leg; having lost the real thing in his war years. Although Rowling provides him with a secretary- the beautiful, kindly but highly resourceful Robin and cracks her own joke about the highly obvious Batman-Robin analogy, she offers fresh spins there too.

Cormoran Strike does all the normal things a detective must do to get to the bottom of a case and like most good crime protagonists we follow, he breaks the occasional law and does the occasional rule bending to stay ahead in his game. The impassivity I felt towards this protagonist in the beginning of the book turned from begrudging relating to strong empathy as I went through it. By the time I had turned the last page, I was firmly a fan.

Once again I looked for the haunting shadows of Harry Potter in the pages of a book by Rowling. It is hard to believe that the creator of that magical story can resort to writing about such mundane, every day things as Afghanistan wars, threading eyebrows (‘it’s like plucking but with a thread?’) and the ugly side of the high lives of the posh. And yet the descriptions are as colorful as ever with hints of that famously mischievous sarcasm. There’s also the occasional uninterrupted monologue which is actually a two-way conversation cut down to it’s essentials, often reducing the protagonist to only a witness. Cormoran is sometimes just there but laconically inscrutable, with a characteristic notebook and pen, while his interviewees talk. His methods of reaching conclusions are, however, less immersing than the step-by-step logic of, say a Poirot or a Holmes, and more in the spirit of a Felix Felicis-esque dependence on what seems like wild theorizing.

Other characters too are colorful and often conflicting, told through the eyes of one another they each come out in bits and pieces and it’s only as the story progresses that you can seriously start to etch them into a niche because the whole picture offers a perspective that you do not get midway in. Even easily fit-table characters like Robin the newly-engaged alacritous temp offers a bunch of endearing, if slightly predictable scenes. As does the well-meaning sister.

With all the elements of crime writing intact, Ms Rowling is clearly rooting for a return of Cormoran Strike. For all his slowly growing charms and passive endurance, I am looking forward to that return. It’s been a long time since I read a breezy book way into the wee hours of the morning, not wanting to put it down and go to bed because the urge to read the ending was so compelling. It’s been too long since I read something so consumable. I had forgotten how much of a crime-fiction fanatic I have been and I long to return to the genre more than I have been in the recent past. I don’t mind a return of this unlikely hero. In fact I unutterably look forward to it. I’m sure that subsequent Strike books will be quite as charming and far more polished than this quite pleasant debut.


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