In the movie Margin Call, Jeremy Irons’ character says that, “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat”. I would like to think that I did at least two of these things to get my hands on a copy of J.K. Rowling’s book The Cuckoo’s Calling.
Published under a pseudonym, (but then, aren’t all the Harry Potter books, as “J.K.” was chosen by Joanne Rowling for its gender neutrality), The Cuckoo’s Calling was released in late April to very little fanfare. Once it was revealed that the pseudonymous Galbraith was actually the massively popular Rowling, this book became a must-have. Immediately after a shut-in on my Twitter feed alerted this news to my attention, I made sure to be first, be smarter, or cheat to find a copy. But enough about your sneaky methods, Charlie, is the book itself any good? Well, yes, actually, it is quite good. The near 500 pages disappeared, and especially in the home stretch, I could not put the book down.
FULL DISCLOSURE I am not a Potterhead. I only read the first book in the Harry Potter series last Christmas Eve, (the plan was the read the whole series by New Year’s Day), and I was not inspired to read the rest of the series. I found the first book agreeable, but a simple mystery story featuring some classic misdirection, (which, of course, I understand to be a major component of magic). But I just could not get into Hogwarts. I’m not a fan of Fantasy, and I find books that feature the impossible too far-fetched. Worse, I had read Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy last October, and, while readable, found to a socialist parable, and not very much fun at all.
The Cuckoo’s Calling changed the Rowling paradigm for me. It is not so much a send-up of the British crime novel, but a reinvention. I found the hero Cormoran Strike to be a fallible, and yet charming character, (the backstory is that his leg was blown off in Afghanistan, and he works with aid of a prosthesis, and Strike is the estranged son of a famous British rocker and a groupie. This backstory is relevant to the plot in ways that I could not imagine were relevant.) Alongside Strike’s Holmes is his temporary secretary Robin, or should I say, (as “Galbraith” does,) the Robin to Strike’s Batman.
Furthermore, we are introduced to a cast a characters far more interesting than in Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, a roster of suspects so deep and varied, that the reveal is made all the more shocking, (for what fun is a whodunnit without possible whos?) The mystery being investigated is model Lula Landry, Cuckoo, who may not have jumped from her window, but was push…wait a second, Lula Landry? It was that much of a mystery that Rowling was the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling? Get this book into my hands in April, and I would have had my girlfriend make the Luna Lovegood / Luna Landry connection in minutes. Also, the different parts separated by quotes in Latin and English by Virgil and Horace, and the ending section featuring an allusion to Alfred, Lord Tennyson. This mystery should have been solved immediately. This is a Rowling book through and through.
However, it contains some excellent meditations on the human condition, including an excellent treatise on how Strike gets people to talk, found on page 150, and a fascinating rumination on “nillness”, (a take a character’s strange pronunciation of “an illness”), on page 226. These insights are really moving, and a suggestion that this is no mere mystery novel. It is, at times, a profound insight into human behaviour, and a masterful demonstration of why Rowling has discovered a legion of fans. I was taken, and will very happily read the next installment in this series, which I imagine will be released to slightly more fanfare.
I just wish that Rowling could just cut out the twee at times. The Dickensian names, the ugly characters being repulsive inside and out, and the downtrodden being ultimately pure of heart. I would love to see how Rowling could handle the complexity of a human that revealed multiple sides within his or her station, a benevolent rich man or woman, or an ugly, good-hearted soul. Methinks that Charles Dickens wields too much influence over Rowling’s writing, which really affected my overall impression of Rowling’s Calling.
Despite that hiccup, I would happily recommend The Cuckoo’s Calling to anyone and everyone. It is an extremely well-crafted mystery, and I outright “gasped” at the end. I guess the real mystery is, aside from reprints, how you can be first, smarter, or cheat to grab yourself a copy of this wonderful tome.