Cormoran Strike is facing into the abyss. Long discharged from the army after losing a leg in Afghanistan, he has just become homeless after walking out on his fiancée. Forced to sleep in his office, he lives like a vagrant, using university sports centres as changing rooms and squandering his last few pennies down the pub. He is deep in arrears and can see no way out of his debts. Strike is a desperate man, but he is also the hero of this new series of detective novels by J.K. Rowling.
The Cuckoo’s Calling is a completely engrossing whodunit, although it is a long way through the book before we discover that it is actually a murder investigation.
The brother of a famous model engages Strike, at double rates, to prove that his sister did not jump to her death from her luxurious apartment in one of the most exclusive parts of London. She was a model and a star of the fashion scene before she apparently committed suicide.
Strike is unconvinced and thinks his client is delusional, but he has to take the job. There’s no money coming in and he’s just engaged a new secretary, Robin, who he can barely afford to pay.
As with Henning Mankell’s Wallender stories, the characters are so good and so real that it’s easy to forget at times that this a murder mystery. Robin, the secretary, is charming as someone who knows she ought to be looking for a better job but cannot hide her excitement at helping out a real-life gumshoe.
Strike himself is reminiscent of Philip Marlowe, protagonist of Raymond Chandler’s classics The Big Sleep and The Long Good-bye. Both men are large, built like boxers, prey to beautiful woman, and drunks. Where Marlowe spends a stake-out sipping from a quarter pint bottle of whiskey in his car, Strike prefers to spend his mornings and afternoons downing pints of Doom Bar, a beer from his native Cornwall.
Both Strike and Marlowe also both work in filthy two-room offices where wealthy clients come to patronise and sneer at them before begging them for help. It is often their quixotic desire for justice that takes them to the end of a case rather than their clients’ cajoling.
Strike is different in many other ways, especially in the fact that he is an amputee. He is a worthy addition to a long line of adventurous and active one-legged men in British fiction.
One weakness is that Strike is also the lovechild of a rock star, allowing Rowling to make several short digressions on the nature of fame and fandom. This is clearly a major preoccupation of hers but probably not one for most of her readers. Nevertheless, Rowling has not forgotten how it feels to be down on your luck:
Four cardboard boxes stood in the middle of the sitting room, open for him to inspect. Here was his cheap and serviceable belongings, heaped together, like jumble-sale objects. … Other people his age had houses and washing machines, cars and television sets, furniture and gardens and mountain bikes and lawnmowers: he had four boxes of crap, and a set of matchless memories.
One surprise in The Cuckoo’s Calling is how funny it is. Rowling’s characters all feel incredibly real, even if they only appear in a single chapter. She also has a deft talent at catching voices, which may have been a motivation for the BBC to pick up the series for a TV dramatisation:
‘Yvette has always been mordibly maternal. She adores babies.’ He spoke as though this was faintly disgusting, a kind of perversion.
Despite having a slightly preposterous ending, The Cuckoo’s Calling is dense, witty, clever and realistic. Anyone who knows London will be able to follow Strike’s passage as he slowly draws together the disparate pieces of a case that doesn’t even appear to be a crime.
There’s sadness here too as Rowling observes that a murder is not just a puzzle to be solved, but a human tragedy as well:
How easy it was to capitalise on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had all been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.
Though Rowling was angry at being exposed as Robert Galbraith too soon, the reading public has to be delighted because this series is utterly absorbing. As for that unbelievable ending, well, Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler were guilty of one or two of those themselves.