Wizardry of a different kind

Wizardry of a different kind

“The buzz in the street was like the humming of flies.”

If crime literature has taught me anything, it’s that all secrets are eventually revealed. Robert Galbraith made barely a ripple when his debut novel was published, selling 1,500 hardback copies and 7,000 ebook, audiobook and library editions in the first three months. And then, with the subtlety of a nuclear bomb, it was leaked that Robert Galbraith was none other than J. K. Rowling. Within days, the book moved from 4,709th to 1st bestselling book on Amazon, and it was once again proved to the world that anything will sell if there’s a famous name attached to it.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is Rowling’s second attempt at adult fiction, and it is as good as, if not better than, her last novel, The Casual Vacancy. It is a modern take on the detective-and-assistant stories. Smatterings of Holmes/Watson and Poirot/Hastings are definitely visible, and I think that battered war-veteran-turned-detective Cormoran Strike and über-efficient secretary Robin Ellacott have all the hallmarks of becoming as loved as their predecessor pairings.

This is the story of Lula Landry, a famous supermodel who plunged to her death from her Mayfair balcony after coming home from a nightclub, being chased by the paparazzi. The police rule it out as suicide, but three months later her brother John Bristow turns up at Strike’s office and asks him to investigate what he believes is his sister’s murder. Strike is not having the best time of it – his girlfriend has just left him, he’s sleeping on a camp bed in his office, and a new secretary has just arrived, even though he’s told the temp agency he can’t afford another one.

The secretary is Robin, whose first interaction with Strike consists of him accidentally grabbing her breast. She, however, is professional to the end and shows her abilities very quickly while Strike listens to Bristow’s concerns. There are now a lot of people to question: Lula’s neighbours, her doorman, her driver, her druggie boyfriend, her modelling friends, her uncle. Someone must know something they haven’t been telling.

Strike and Robin form an unlikely partnership. He is impressed by her speed and efficiency at finding out information, and also grateful that she hasn’t mentioned that he’s clearly living in his office, and she’s happy and shocked to be around a real gumshoe, which has been her secret dream for years. He begins to involve her a little more in the case and together they work in their own ways to get to the bottom of what looks more and more like murder.

As she did throughout Harry Potter, and again in Vacancy, Rowling displays that incredible ability she has to make interesting, three-dimensional, fully realised characters. They aren’t strictly all likeable, but you will become invested in all of them as they leap of the page, from camp fashion designer Guy Somé to grubby computer engineer Spanner. The troubled detective Strike takes most of the spotlight, but he’s a very interesting character with a curious backstory, hints about which are sprinkled liberally throughout the novel. Robin is also a great invention, and she seems instantly likeable, but I wish we could’ve spent more time with her. While we see Strike off getting information and finding evidence, we only find out what Robin is up to when she tells him later on, which is a shame because I enjoy seeing her at work on the few occasions we are lucky enough to do so.

The solution is a great one, and it all makes great sense. Does Strike make some guesses that are almost precognitive in their nature? Well, maybe, but so did Sherlock Holmes and no one really seemed to mind that about him. Except me, actually. I think part of that is because I don’t like the character around the guesswork in that series.

London comes alive in the novel too, as Rowling paints the city (“part man, part machine”) with lively description and colour. Like Harry Potter, she once again delves into a world hidden below the one most of us are used to. But instead of wizards, this time it’s the rich and famous, living in a world of unimaginable quantities of money, hard drugs, exclusive chic clubs and expensive fashion shoots. It sparkles with just as much charm, wonder and danger as did Hogwarts and Diagon Alley before it. Obviously, you cannot compare the book to Harry Potter (Harry never said “fuck” for a start), and it is a measure of Rowling’s talent that you can’t tell it’s her writing.

While I’m sad for her that her identity was revealed so soon and in such a ridiculous way, I’m really quite pleased because it means I got to read this book. Like so many other people, I must’ve walked past it a dozen times in bookshops without looking. Yes, I only got it once I knew it was her, but simply because I am a big admirer of her work and feel that if she’d written it, it was going to be good. I was not wrong.

I look forward to a continuation of the series.