I wish that I could say that I was among the brave, the few who read The Cuckoo’s Calling before pseudonymous author Richard Galbraith’s real identity was revealed. In case you hadn’t heard, the mystery was penned by the best-selling fiction author of the past half-century, J.K. Rowling.
If I had been reading the book in the absence of the knowledge of just who wrote it, a review would have been easy and very pleasant to write: it’s a taut, well-written mystery that does a wonderful job of reviving an all-but-dead genre, the gumshoe detective style mastered by Hammett, Chandler and (on the other side of the pond, and in a very different mode) Sayers. The characters are strikingly, efficiently drawn, the pacing neither too fast nor too slow, the leavening of real humor a pleasant surprise, and the mystery properly mysterious. The main characters — from the victim (a supermodel named Lula — called Cuckoo by her friends — who is supposed to have committed suicide) to the detective and his temporary secretary-cum-sidekick, the characters show real complexity. Rarely do they behave according to type.
Knowing the book was written by the author of the mega-successful Harry Potter books did change my perspective — but just a bit. There are certainly some notes that will be familiar to anyone who read the adventures of Harry & Co. The detective has the wonderfully Dickenian, delightfully Rowling-esque name of Cormoran Strike. There’s a wealth of sly social commentary, and a familiar deft hand with quick, vivid character sketches. Like Harry, Strike is an orphan — his single mother’s dead. (It’s hard to feel as badly for a man in his thirties as for an eleven-year-old, but still.) There’s even Rowling’s nostalgia for the West of England; in the Harry Potter books, the Weasleys, Harry’s adoptive family, live in Devon, as do the aunt and uncle with whom Cormoran and his sister took refuge. (And of course, it was difficult to read the description of Strike in the first chapter and not think of him being played by Robbie Coltrane — aka Hagrid.) His sidekick is a fastidious, meticulous, but surprisingly resourceful young woman (Robin!).
The negatives are few. On a couple of occasions I wanted to hit Strike over the head for not seeing something that I — and most other readers, I assume — could see plainly. I was also a bit annoyed when it became clear that he had solved the mystery — but wouldn’t tell anyone. He spends the first two thirds of the book in a severe funk; his transformation as we head down the home stretch feels a bit forced. And while I loved the solution to the mystery, the psychology behind the crime — and, even more so, to its aftermath — still seems like a bit of a stretch to me.
Nonetheless, Comoran Strike ably carries the mantle of Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe and Peter Wimsey (well, Wimsey’s mantle is ermine, but he wore it sleuthin’ even so). I look forward to following his further adventures.
As a writer, publisher, and editor, the thing that I find both reassuring and depressing about l’affaire Galbraith is that it showed just how difficult it is — even with a very good, very well reviewed book — actually to get yourself a best-seller, unless you have a lot of luck or the kind of platform that J.K. Rowling has, and that very few other authors could even dream of. The Cuckoo’s Calling was published by a first-rate commercial publisher, was given excellent press, had a great response from both professional reviewers and folks on sites like Goodreads — and was sitting at an Amazon ranking of about 5000 on the day that the news of Rowling’s authorship broke. At a guess, I’d say that a ranking like that indicates daily sales through America’s various commercial booksellers of about ten copies a day. Definitely respectable, but not leaping off of the shelves by anyone’s measure.