Now that the cloak of invisibility has been slipped off J.K. Rowling, we know that she wrote The Cuckoo's Calling, published in April as the debut novel by a fictional British Army veteran named Robert Galbraith.
I'll put aside the palaver about the book's positive critical reception and sluggish sales (not unusual for a first novel by an unknown author), about whether it would have seen print had its publisher not secretly known Rowling wrote it (maybe not, since at least one other publisher, not in on the secret, turned it down) to focus on this question: How good is the book?
My answer, as an avid reader of crime fiction, is: pretty darn good.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that, as a whole, it's more successful as a book than Rowling's first venture into non-Harry Potter fiction aimed at adults, last year's bestselling The Casual Vacancy. I liked that novel (better than some other critics did), but I like this one more.
Okay, is it a match for the Harry Potter saga? No, and very, very few series are. An interesting side note: When Rowling was an unknown, the first of the books about the boy wizard, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (retitled HP and the Sorcerer's Stone in the United States), was turned down by numerous publishers over more than a year before she sold it to Bloomsbury — where, in 1997, it had an initial print run of 500 copies. (Bloomsbury also asked her to use initials instead of her first name, Joanne, because they thought boys wouldn't read a book written by a woman.)
The Cuckoo's Calling is clearly meant to begin another series, a sign that although the multimillionaire Rowling doesn't need to write another word, she can't help herself.
Her private detective, Cormoran Strike, has an interesting back story. He's one of seven children of a Jaggeresque rock star named Jonny Rokeby. But because he's one of Rokeby's illegitimate kids, born to a mother everywhere described as a "supergroupie," Strike has only a distant relationship with his father and grew up far from the lap of luxury. A stint in the British military as an investigator left him with keen skills in interrogation but cost him half of his right leg.
As the novel's story opens, he's 35, deeply in debt and has just been thrown out by his rich, aristocratic, gorgeous and cruel longtime girlfriend. With their tempestuous affair over and his work and resources next to nonexistent, his only option is to move into his office.
Robin Ellacott, on her way to her first day as Strike's temporary secretary, is in an entirely different situation: Her boyfriend has just proposed, in satisfyingly romantic fashion (sapphire ring, bended knee before the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus), and she's excited about her assignment because of her secret childhood longing to be a private detective.
The pair meet when Strike quite literally runs into Robin, almost knocking her down a steep flight of stairs, and rescues her by grabbing her left breast. Despite that awkward beginning, they're soon working together on a case that drops into Strike's lap: the death of supermodel Lula Landry, a "bronze-skinned, colt-limbed, diamond-cut beauty" who plunged off her third-floor balcony one snowy night three months before.
Lula's death has been ruled a suicide, but her brother, lawyer John Bristow, insists she was murdered and wants Strike to prove it. Both John and Lula are the siblings of Charlie Bristow, a boyhood friend of Strike's who died in a shocking accident. Strike's first reaction is that Bristow is simply unwilling to accept his sister's death, but between his memories of Charlie and the extravagant pay Bristow offers, he accepts the case.
With Robin's help, he delves into Lula's glamorous life, questioning her musician-addict boyfriend, her fashion designer BFF, her model pals. Rowling's own fame and wealth have given her access to that world, too, and it sounds as if most of the rich and famous haven't made a good impression on her — Strike finds a panoply of suspects.
The plot takes a number of skillful turns, no surprise given that the Harry Potter books have strong mystery elements. One is eerie, though, involving a lawyer divulging a client's secrets — which is just how Rowling's authorship of this book was revealed.
Would many readers have recognized her hand before that? I have to say that Strike, who's described as "massive; his height, his general hairiness, coupled with a gently expanding belly, suggesting a grizzly bear," reminded me not a little of Hagrid. And Robin's chipper resourcefulness has the ring of Hermione Granger.
Would I have read The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith in April and thought, by Jove, that's Jo Rowling? No. But would I have looked forward to the next Cormoran Strike book (coming next summer!) either way? Yes.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.