Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike 01) by Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling)

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.

Then John Bristow, the brother of his childhood friend, walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

You may think you know detectives, but you’ve never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you’ve never seen them under an investigation like this.

What I liked:

I did like the fact that the book was published under an alias. If you remember my review of The Casual Vacancy you know I have been an ardent proponent of such a solution. And surprise, surprise: before that secret became known to all and sundry allegedly at least one editor rejected the novel. Let’s face it: it is a good story but hardly brilliant. Still kudos to the author for taking the risk of an impartial assessment! I do hope it will lead to better novels in the future!
I admit I liked the Cuckoo’s Calling far better than the first ‘adult’ JKR’s book. The plot was more interesting, the main character and his secretary sidekick – more likeable. Small wonder: this book is full of birds: we got a cuckoo, a cormoran, a robin and a Leda who, as far as I remember my Greek myths, was intimately involved with a certain swan…
Fortunately JKR does like to torture her characters – poor Cormoran not only has just one leg and is virtually penniless, forced to sleep in his office, but also has been ditched by his fiancee, a very beautiful and rich girl called Charlotte he apparently still loves. What’s more, he is rather overweight and plain, in bad physical condition, practically friendless, constantly harrassed by people who only want to know more about his relationship with the famous rock star father. I admired the man’s stamina and patience – if I were him I would be completely miserable, snapping at everybody right left and centre.
The mysterious death of a fashion model, Lula Landry, wasn’t done badly – perhaps not exactly an original premise, definitely reminding me of some Agatha Christie’s books, but overall executed nicely as far as I am concerned. The narrative voice of Rowling was, in my opinion, the best feature of this one. JKR knows how to write, although she sometimes uses a bit too bombastic vocabulary to suit a simple whodunnit.

What I didn’t like:
Let me start with an unimportant tidbit. One name: Lechsinka. It was supposed to be a name of a lovely Polish cleaning lady, a girl with bad English but a great bottom and a thorough approach to her job. One problem: that name doesn’t exist and/or is not used in real life – take it from another girl born and raised in Poland. One would think that there are so many Polish people, cleaners or otherwise, living and working on the British Isles it would be relatively easy to come with a real name, Slavic-flavoured and all. I wonder why JKR decided to invent one instead. Boredom? Laziness? Some obscure Google problems? Or maybe the authoress thought that nobody would care ? After all an immigrant cleaner and a secondary character to boot is not important, right? Well, wrong. A good author, in my view, always tries to dot their i’s and cross their t’s. In a great novel there are no unimportant characters or spurious names. What’s worse, Lechsinka apparently doesn’t know the English word ‘detecive’ – Cormoran has to explain to her that he is a kind of cop. I found the scene simply ludicrous because that particular word is very similar to its Polish counterpart (detektyw) so easily recognizable. Honestly, is research such an onerous task, Mrs. Rowling?
My second complain: there were too many elements which purpose I simply didn’t understand. For example these Latin quotes (and additionally it did bother me that I couldn’t find any mention of the author of the English translations – did JKR translate them herself? If so, why it wasn’t stated anywhere?). At a stretch you could somehow join them with some story arcs but they were, in my humble opinion, too philosophical and aloof to fit the novel. I might be just mean now but after a while I admit I started to suspect that the author included them because she wanted to appear more sophisiticated and educated than your ordinary crime story writer. A completely uncharitable thought, I know.
Then the title. It was a bit too vague, too metaphorical to reflect well the content or provide a clear message of any kind. Ok, I admit it, after a while it kind of made sense (and no, not because the book features a Swiss cuckoo clock ;p ) but, at the same time, it felt spurious, too overthought perhaps. I personally could think of several more fitting titles (e.g.Of cuckoos and cormorans) and I am not the only one. One of funnier suggestions I’ve found (under the review published by the Guardian): The golden goose’s calling. Simply brilliant!
Finally something that really disturbed my reading and made me bored more than once: walking and talking. In other words the pacing of the novel was too stolid for my taste. I grant it, perhaps the real investigations done by real detectives are mundane drudgeries like this one, consisting mainly of interviewing the witnesses, family and friends, connecting the facts, guessing and double guessing who lies, who tells the truth and why but in a novel it should be limited to the bare minimum. Nothing kills the interest in the crime itself more swiftly than an endless walking and talking. Nothing is more pathetic than a situation when a crime mystery reader, reaching page 320 out of 388, shouts : hooray, finally something happens!
Let me add a word or two about the cover – it is HIDEOUS and STUPID, perhaps a good choice for a chick lit novel but completely WRONG for a crime fiction book. I would never take this one into my hand just because of the cover appeal because there is NONE.
Final verdict:
A moderately good crime story. For a rookie writer it could have been a nice debut (if it was published at all, that is); for somebody of JKR’s fame and renown my expectations were definitely higher. Better luck next time, Mr. Strike. I suppose I might be inclined to give you a second chance but let me call a spade a spade: I am a bit disappointed so it will be your last one.

BTW go and read a fabulous review of this book by Tasha/Heidenkind.

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9 Responses to Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike 01) by Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling)

  1. I didn't even notice the bird thing! I feel so unobservant now. Upon further consideration, I feel like this book has more depth than I gave it credit for because the story was so slow. Maybe some day I'll reread it and appreciate more. As for the classic quotes at the start of every "part," I didn't even read them. They didn't seem to have much to do with the book, and I don't know enough about Virgil to figure out whatever subtleties Rowling was intending (also I never read quotes at the start of chapters, nor prologues).This book definitely had problems, but like you I loved Rowling's voice. She's a great writer and I'm happy she chose to write a mystery, because if she'd stuck on the CasVac type of novel… uhg.

  2. Blodeuedd says:

    Do not even get me started on that cover, that is obviously chic-lit and nothing else

  3. It's wrong. Like W.R.O.N.G.

  4. I didn't even notice the bird thing! I feel so unobservant now.Come off it. You just noticed different issues. Your review was great!About the depth of the story: the analyzis of the upper class was perhaps good but it was also a bit boring and I really, truly didn't get the quotes so if they served a purpose it went right above my head. On the other hand why use obscure quotes of a long-dead poet? Especially when they are not only unrecognizable but also they don't contribute anything whatsoever?Overall the book felt a bit too classic, especially the ending. Talking face to face with a murderer while outlining his crimes – it's been done to death since Sherlock Holmes. Or maybe even earlier.

  5. Yeah, that ending was just to easy. I'm totally okay with using classic mystery tropes, but you have to give them some sort of twist or something. As for the literary tie-ins, she should read Craig Johnson if she wants to see how it's done. This just came off as needlessly pretentious and not integrated into the story at all.

  6. 'Needlessly pretentious' – a great turn of phrase. They were exactly that.

  7. Aurian says:

    Great review, thank you! I did not have the intention to read the book, and now I really won't bother with it. I do wonder if anyone would have noticed the book without the author-reveal?

  8. I do wonder if anyone would have noticed the book without the author-reveal?Probably nobody. It is not anything special.

  9. Pingback: Review: The Cold Dish (Walt Longmire 01) by Craig Johnson | portable pieces of thoughts

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