Book Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter ...

J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter at White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

★★★★★

It was a clever idea of J.K.Rowling’s to publish this book in secret, under an assumed name. Because The Cuckoo’s Calling is all about identity — and specifically the way in which we mistake people’s real identities, especially where the famous are concerned.

Of course, on one level it’s blindingly obvious that it’s a book about identity: it’s a whodunnit, after all, a detective story in which we are supposed to keep turning the pages to find the identity of the killer. But I don’t think that’s why you do keep turning the pages of The Cuckoo’s Calling. I think, in the end, the killer’s is the least interesting identity in the book.

On the face of it, The Cuckoo’s Calling is standard genre fare. We have a private detective with an improbable name (Cormoran Strike), an unhappy love life, money troubles (he’s sleeping in his office), and a hard luck background (ex-soldier, lost a leg in Afghanistan). We have his unlikely sidekick, overqualified secretary Robin who is only temping for a bit till she can get a better job, but secretly doesn’t want to leave, because she always wanted to be a detective.

And we have a tragic, beautiful victim: supermodel Lula Landry, who fell to her death  from her Mayfair balcony. Police think it was suicide, but there’s a socially awkward yet devoted brother who insists it was murder.

Even before Rowling’s unmasking, The Cuckoo’s Calling won wide praise as a classic crime thriller. But I think Rowling has quietly done something much more interesting. She’s turned the genre on its head, and written a detective story in which, for once, it is the victim who is more interesting than her killer. Where the detective is more interesting than the killer. In fact, where pretty much everyone is more interesting than the killer.

No one in modern, celebrity-obssessed London, will so much as speak to Cormoran Strike until they find out he’s the illegitimate son of a famous rock star. Detective, war hero, they get you nowhere. Famous dad opens doors. That infuriates Strike, who barely knows his father, can’t stand him and has no desire to be identified with him.

Once he’s set to work finding out what happened to Lula Landry, he finds himself uncovering more about her past than just the story of how she died. She was the superstar, beautiful, desired, fabulously rich — and everyone has their own idea of who she was, or who they wanted her to be. There’s the druggie, rock star boyfriend; the fashion designer gay best friend; the rival supermodel; the snobbish, entitled neighbour; the smitten driver; and the mysterious homeless friend who no one can find.

Somehow, through all their accounts, slanted to favour their own view of the dead woman, Strike has to recapture the real Lula Landry. And when he does, he finds a woman who was searching for her own identity in a place no one else thought to look.

This is a book about celebrity, and Rowling knows a bit about that, after the immense fame the Harry Potter books brought her. In one of its finest sections, The Cuckoo’s Calling takes us on an extended journey through celebrity London with Strike, Landry’s bereaved boyfriend and a rival supermodel, paparazzi on their tail, camera flashes blinding Strike as he emerges from the car, to a secret celebrity bar inside one of London’s most fashionable clubs, where the quite famous elbow each other for the chance to sit next to the more famous, and there’s even an oblique reference to Russell Brand standing in the corner.

And then it’s back to the home of the boyfriend,  who bears something of a passing resemblance to Pete Doherty, where Strike finally prises out a little more of the truth. But here’s the really telling detail: even as he questions the boyfriend, he can hear the paparazzi muttering outside the window. This is the seedy, unpleasant side of Britain’s celebrity obssession, observed by some one who knows it.

There’s a case to be made that The Cuckoo’s Calling is biting social satire masquerading as a crime novel: it’s not only the celebs who get it, the world of London’s privileged, entitled rich is described just as scathingly. And, in case you thought this was class war, the adopted Landry’s working class birth mother is drawn equally unsparingly. No tarts with a heart here.

But it’s more than satire. The Cuckoo’s Calling works because its characters are so well drawn. Because they have real identities, more solid than the ideas others have about them. Cormoran Strike may have a ridiculous name, but he’s a realistic, likeable personality. The break-up of his relationship is believable and painful. And when things finally go right for him later in the book, I found myself punching the air with joy for him, as if he were a real-life acquaintance who’d been through hard times.

Rowling’s greatest strength as a writer, for all those elaborate Chekhov’s guns in the Potter books, has always been her characters. People didn’t really care about magic and unicorns and wizarding, goblets of fire or Elder Wands — they cared about Harry and Hermione, Dumbledore and Hagrid.

By bringing that talent for creating characters to a crime novel, Rowling’s breathed new life into the genre. It doesn’t matter that characters take improbable journeys on the London Underground. It doesn’t matter that one of the most important plot points of The Cuckoo’s Calling rests on some one going to extraordinary and unlikely lengths to get an anonymous mobile phone number, as if Rowling has never heard of Pay As You Go. (If they’d just got a prepaid SIM, the entire story would never have happened.)

It doesn’t matter because, like all the best novels, The Cuckoo’s Calling is a story about its characters. In fact, it’s all about finding out who they really are.

On the other hand, you could probably read it as a pure genre whodunnit, and love it.

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