“The Cuckoo’s Calling,” by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling. Mulholland Books/Little Brown and Company, New York. 464 pages, $26.
J.K. Rowling keeps us guessing, not just about who wrote “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” but also about who-done-it in her clever and thoroughly enjoyable detective novel. An engaging guessing game about the murderer’s identity, fueled by red herrings and lively characters, concludes with a satisfying surprise ending.
With an office in contemporary London, down-and-out ex-veteran Strike, who nurses a painful war injury and a heart wounded in love, hangs on to his private detective agency less by a thread and more by dodging and weaving. Any minute what’s left of his material life is going to come crashing down.
A temp worker that Strike never asks for, Robin, shows up at his door at the same time as does John Bristow, a client who offers double pay. Bristow’s super-famous supermodel adopted sister, Lula Landry, has just died from a fall off her condo deck. The police say it’s suicide but Bristow insists it’s murder. He asks for Strike’s help.
Rowling, who published “The Cuckoo’s Calling” under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, allows herself the time to develop characters with a full slate of flaws, vulnerabilities and secrets. Strike, a big burly man with a sharp brain and a missing lower leg, is private and proud. He quickly comes to value his resourceful temp, Robin. Her understanding of his precarious finances, his talents and his need for privacy, quickly sets the stage for a story rooted in carefully guarded caring and concern. They make an affecting, effective and, we hope, enduring team.
Strike, shown to be thorough and honest about his work, believes at first that Lula Landry did jump off her balcony of her own accord. It’s his relentless quest for details that leads him into the complex web of characters that make up Lula’s day-to-day life. There’s her vile biological mother — a nasty character Rowling seems to delight in teasing us with. And there’s her dying adopted mother who needs Lula as a replacement for her beloved young son who died after plunging off a cliff and drowning. Lula is far more needed than she is loved.
Lula has a rock musician boyfriend, known for his rages. She’s also being pursued by a famous rapper who moves into her building after writing songs about her. She’s bipolar and has a loyal homeless friend she befriended in a treatment facility. She also has close friends in the fashion industry. Brother John is a puzzle as is her humorless and grim uncle Tony. More puzzling is the unpleasant woman that brother John seems to be courting. Each character is distinct, with a voice that can only be theirs. And most of them have reasons, Strike comes to discover, to want Lula dead. Readers already know that character creation is one of Rowling’s great talents.
Page 2 of 2 - Strike slowly, systematically penetrates Lula’s world of hairdressers, clothing designers, supermodels and warped family. Not only are these people full of secrets, so, too, is Lula. Strike takes nothing for granted and, with Robin, feels his way along every thread till it yields some interesting tidbit or runs out. Striker works with police strategically but he is off on his own quest that in no way parallels what the police are up to.
One mystery never solved is why Rowling would not use her own name as author of “The Cuckoo’s Calling.” I’ve read that the book, though well reviewed, sold only 500 copies when bookstores began sending returns back to the publisher. And why would the publisher agree to this plan? Now, of course, the secret is out. Readers, author and publisher all stand to gain as a result.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF. Her creative marketing business, New Arts Collaborative, helps creative businesses find and connect with their audiences.