It was a dark and stormy night (for it is in London that our scene lies)— the supermodel Lula Landry lies dead on the sidewalk below the balcony of her luxurious Mayfair apartment:
Photographers stood massed behind barriers patrolled by police, their long-snouted cameras poised, their breath rising like steam. Snow fell steadily on to hats and shoulders; gloved fingers wiped lenses clear. From time to time there came outbreaks of desultory clicking, as the watchers filled the waiting time by snapping the white canvas tent in the middle of the road, the entrance to the tall red-brick apartment block behind it, and the balcony on the top floor from which the body had fallen.
— From the Prelude of The Cuckoo’s Calling (p. 3). Kindle Edition.
The Cuckoo’s Calling is a crime novel by JK Rowling (writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith). In this intimate look at the world of haute couture, Rowling introduces us to Cormoran Strike, who is a classic hardboiled detective. His girlfriend has just left him in a rage, he is beat up sporting a black eye, he’s broke and forced to live out of his office, he drinks too much, and, less classically, he has PTSD from his experiences in Afghanistan.
The Cuckoo’s Calling also has literary pretensions– Rowling set the stage for the opening scene by including a poem by the 19th century lyric poet Christina G. Rossetti:
Why were you born when the snow was falling?
You should have come to the cuckoo’s calling,
Or when grapes are green in the cluster,
Or, at least, when lithe swallows muster
For their far off flying
From summer dying.
Why did you die when the lambs were cropping?
You should have died at the apples’ dropping,
When the grasshopper comes to trouble,
And the wheat-fields are sodden stubble,
And all winds go sighing
For sweet things dying.
—Dirge, Christina G. Rossetti, 1865
The return of the Cuckoo to England from its winter home in Africa is a harbinger of spring. The poet is saddened by the sudden death of an infant or friend and, searching for a reason, seems to blame the victim: “You should have come to the cuckoo’s calling.”
Casting blame; is it Lula Landry’s fault that she lies dead on the sidewalk? The police inspectors at the scene seem to think so— they rule her death a suicide.
Rossetti’s poem is lovely, but it is unusual in crime fiction. Obviously, Rowling has ideas about how this genre is written.
Fast forward the story to 3 months after Lula Landry’s death. Rowling introduces the reader to a young woman on her way up Oxford Street:
Though Robin Ellacott’s 25 years of life had seen their moments of drama and incident, she had never before woken up in the certain knowledge that she would remember the coming day for as long as she lived. Shortly after midnight, her long-term boyfriend, Matthew, had proposed to her under the statue of Eros in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. …
Male eyes lingered on her as she picked her way through the road-works at the top of Oxford Street, consulting a piece of paper in her right hand. Robin was, by any standards, a pretty girl; tall and curvaceous, with long strawberry-blonde hair that rippled as she strode briskly along, the chill air adding color to her pale cheeks. This was the first day of a week-long secretarial assignment. She had been temping ever since coming to live with Matthew in London, though not for much longer; she had what she termed “proper” interviews lined up now.
— The Cuckoo’s Calling (p. 11-12). Kindle Edition.
Robin enters a building on Oxford Street, climbs the stairs and stops before a door labeled Cormoran B. Strike, Private Detective.
Savoring the moment, she approached the engraved door very slowly. She stretched out her left hand (sapphire dark, now, in this dim light) towards the handle; but before she had touched it, the glass door too flew open. This time, there was no near-miss. Sixteen unseeing stone of disheveled male slammed into her; Robin was knocked off her feet and catapulted backwards, handbag flying, arms windmilling, towards the void beyond the lethal staircase.
— The Cuckoo’s Calling (p. 14). Kindle Edition.
Robin is saved from falling down the stairs by Cormoran’s strong arms and, while she collects herself, Cormoran apologizes and helps her into the office (well aware that he has no money to pay a temporary secretary). It was then that Charlie Bristow, Lula Landry’s brother, appeared at the door. Charlie and Cormoran were once schoolmates, and Charlie wants to engage Cormoran to uncover the truth about Lula’s tragic death. Was it really suicide, or was it, in fact, murder? Cormoran, the retired military police officer, now had a paying client, and he could afford to pay Robin’s salary. Maybe things would work out for him.
Finally, Rowling has brought together the detective, his helper and a possible crime to solve. She has set the stage and the novel can go ahead, but there is much grueling police work to do before Cormoran and Robin solve the mystery of Lula’s apparent suicide. I enjoyed this début novel even though it is somewhat over-written. I liked the Cormoran character, and Robin is the perfect foil and assistant.
If you are in the mood for a fast-paced thriller set in the London world of fashion and celebrity, then you can’t go wrong with The Cuckoo’s Calling. As for me, I’m a fan of JK Rowling, and hope that Robin and Cormoran will team up for another adventure. I look forward to the next novel of the series, if there is one.