Unless you avoid the news to the extent that you have actually been walking around wearing ear-plugs and blinkers for the past two years, you are probably already aware that crime writer Robert Galbraith, whose debut novel The Cuckoo's Calling was published in 2013, is in fact JK Rowling writing under a pseudonym. If you've read the Harry Potter books you'll also know that they are as much mystery stories as they are fantasy novels, with neat, intricate plots scattered liberally with clever hints and clues, so it doesn't surprise me at all that Rowling was inclined to move into the detective genre.
Lots of people have already written reviews of The Cuckoo's Calling in which they look for similarities between the writing of JK Rowling and that of her alter-ego Galbraith, so I won't bother to do that here, and will try instead to review the novel just I would any other book.
The Cuckoo's Calling, rather than being a police procedural, has a private detective as its main character. Private detectives, the hallmark of the 'Golden Age' of crime fiction, are increasingly rare in mystery novels these days, and as such Cormoran Strike makes a pleasant change from the obligatory maverick Detective Inspector. With his embarrassing family history, immense bulk and prosthetic leg, Strike begins the novel broke and down on his luck, but as a former soldier - Strike was a Red Cap until the loss of his leg - he is tenacious, resourceful and stoical.
The central mystery of The Cuckoo's Calling is the death of troubled mega-star supermodel Lula Landry, one of three adopted children in the rich Bristow family. The official verdict on Lula's fatal fall from her apartment's balcony is suicide, but her older brother John is convinced she was pushed and asks Strike, once a school friend of their brother Charlie, to investigate.
The investigation itself features numerous encounters with various super-rich celebrities, as well as the people who make a living out of being part of their entourage such as the often unnoticed drivers, make-up artists and concierges. Every single character is vivid and well-drawn, no matter how small a role they play in the story, and the crime plot is extremely well-executed and satisfying.
It's also an interesting take on the nature of celebrity and publicity, with Strike appropriately positioned as an observant outsider, sometimes appalled, sometimes fascinated and sometimes comically unimpressed. The novel counts an exclusive night-club, a fashion house and an ultra-expensive designer boutique among its settings, but also never shies away from the underlying tawdriness of modern fame as seen through Strike's eyes.
Interesting too is the character of Strike himself, whose intriguing back-story, awkward relationships and occasional vulnerabilities make him an immensely likeable protagonist. Likeable too is the ultra-capable Robin, the office temp Strike can't afford who arrives after a mix-up with her agency but who proves to be surprisingly well-suited to her role as Strike's assistant. The relationship between them is both endearing and amusing, and could certainly provide endless scope for sub-plots in future Cormoran Strike novels.
It could be argued that the events of The Cuckoo's Calling aren't always entirely plausible, but frankly, this really doesn't matter. Some suspension of disbelief is required when reading any detective novel that features a private detective - who hasn't wondered why people don't just tell Hercule Poirot or Philip Marlowe to piss right off with their rudely personal questions and total lack of any official authority? The Cuckoo's Calling, to my mind, seems very much a modern homage to those sorts of novels, despite its contemporary setting.
This is an extremely accomplished detective novel with characters I loved and a plot that kept me constantly guessing. I suspect I'll definitely be reading the second Robert Galbraith novel, The Silkworm, pretty soon.