Every generation has some series that holds a special place in its childhood memories. The characters of the story are so well-known to all that casual references to them will be universally understood. Quotes or special book-words are so familiar that become part of the generation's very vocabulary. From nerds to cheerleaders, everyone obsesses over the upcoming book releases. For my generation, Harry Potter was this series. Throughout my time in middle school, and even through my time in high school, casual conversation could drift into passionate discussions about theories or characters, and although my library had 24 copies of Azkaban, I still ended up on such a long waiting list that I ended up buying the book out of sheer desperation. When the end came, I was in a summer program, and literally every single member of the program spent That Weekend reading Deathly Hallows. I couldn't wait to find out what type of story Rowling would write next. When, years later, Casual Vacancy appeared, however, the lukewarm reviews chilled my enthusiasm. Needless to say, I approached Cuckoo's Calling with some amount of trepidation. Despite all that, I jumped onto the library waiting list for the audiobook of Cuckoo's Calling.
Fast-forward a few months and I received a notice, out of the blue, that my hold had come through. It could not have appeared at a more opportune time: unable to read print books and with far too much time spent with my eyes closed, I was in desperate need of an entertaining story. Cuckoo's Calling most certainly delivered.
The story itself has the spirit of a Golden Age whodunit and the trappings of a hardboiled/noir potboiler. It also contains all the little amusing singularities I've come to expect of Rowling, starting with the quirky character names. Cormoran Strike is a down-and-out private detective who just lost his fiance and is days away from losing his office. Robin, his "temporary solution" secretary, is far from impressed with her loud, hirsuite, and disheveled new boss, and is just wondering how his business stays afloat when a client walks through the door. The client wants Strike to re-investigate the apparent suicide of his sister, a famous model. As the case pulls them into the disparate realms of fashion models, the old-money aristocracy, and drug rehabilitation centres, Robin quickly finds herself acting as the plucky, clever, and endlessly inventive Girl Friday for the cynical, uncompromising, but surprisingly passionate Strike.
The story contains some familiar themes: a son trying to deal with the absence or death of family members; a child grappling with fame and the notoriety of famous parents; the finality and inevitability of death. Its plot twists are intensely satisfying, [although I must admit that the first son's death eliminated most of the suspects; it was clear from the character's introduction that he was murdered, which meant that either Tony or John was his murderer, and therefore the murderer of Lala.] Something--perhaps the tone; perhaps the vibrant depiction of the characters--reminded me strongly of Agatha Chrsitie. Rowling creates a host of characters who feel real enough to breathe, and she approaches them and their various worlds with more sympathy than other writers such as P.D. James.
For me, the depth of the book only increased by the knowledge that it was authored by Rowling. Originally, the book carried this description:
Born in 1968, Robert Galbraith is married with two sons. After several years with the Royal Military Police, he was attached to the SIB (Special Investigation Branch), the plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. The idea for protagonist Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who have returned to the civilian world.
I am grateful that Rowling's true identity was uncovered because for me, one of the least genuine aspects of the book was the depiction of the military. The falsification of the author's military experience would merely throw the hazy characterization into further relief. Strike's military background is alluded to only in the most general terms and in the sketchiest of detail, yet one would think that he would constantly be recalling his past and contextualizing his present in its terms. Rowling's depiction of military life is superficial at best; not only does she leave almost all of the details hazy, but she also uses all of the standard civilian generalizations (e.g. that the military absorbs one's personality, identity, and uniqueness in a constant quest for uniformity). She writes about it as an outsider; as one who has read the articles and seen the cinematic depictions, but one without the visceral memories of the experience itself.
At the same time, Rowling's portrait of life trapped under the ever-watching unblinking gaze of the public is raw and real. Here, Rowling writes from experience, detailing the awkwardness that stems from the public's parasocial relationships, in which celebrities are spoken of by first name or nickname with affection and familiarity. The scenes involving the voracious paparazzi and the public's obsession with scurrilous celebrity gossip are vivid and emotional. The underlying theme of the dangers and tragedy of fame, the loss of the private life for the public's diversion hints that Rowling's own fame is not untinged with bitterness.
Overall, Cuckoo's Calling was a wonderful read; not an imaginative apex like Harry Potter, but a thoroughly engrossing and enjoyable whodunit. It is definitely not for a younger audience; profanity is present throughout and the plot deals with themes of domestic abuse, infidelity, and other malignant human behaviors. The main characters of Robin and Strike are sympathetic, yet far from perfect, and I found my heart warming at their exploits. The mystery was perfect--plenty of twists to keep you guessing, but enough clues that you kick yourself at the end for not grasping particular aspects.
If you, like me, grew up with Harry Potter as a universal byword, then take a look at Cuckoo's Calling. J.K. Rowling hasn't lost her touch.