I love when two of my favorite things get combined—in this case, murder mysteries and the author of my favorite children’s series! The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first book in the Cormoran Strike series that J. K. Rowling publishes under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. If you’re not familiar with Rowling’s adult works, I will warn you: these books are nothing like Harry Potter. Do not approach them expecting magic and child-appropriate language. You can, however, expect the same great quality of writing and complex character development.
The Cuckoo’s Calling follows private detective Cormoran Strike and his new secretary Robin as they investigate the suspicious suicide of a celebrated supermodel. Lula Landry, affectionately called Cuckoo by one of her close friends, had fallen to her death from the balcony of her luxury apartment three months earlier. As she’d had a history of struggling with her mental health, the police were quick to rule Lula’s death a suicide, but her brother isn’t so sure. Landing the case is Strike’s lucky break at a moment when everything else in his life is falling apart: already deep in debt, he has just become homeless after breaking up with his long-term girlfriend and has resorted to sleeping in his office. On top of that, the temp agency has sent him a new secretary, whom he can’t afford to pay but can’t stand to let go. Solving a high-profile case like Lula Landry’s could be just what Strike needs to get himself back on his feet.
Cormoran Strike fits the common crime thriller trope of the gruff and surly detective. He stands in sharp contrast with his bubbly, girly, and enthusiastic assistant, Robin Ellacott, who quickly impresses Strike with both her competence and tact. In the classic detective story model, Robin serves almost as the Watson to Strike’s Sherlock. She’s the normal, relatable character who occasionally functions as a stand-in for the reader, though she has plenty of agency of her own and makes some fairly important contributions to the case. The story follows several other detective fiction tropes, such as having an obvious red herring and a twist ending. The identity of the killer came as a complete surprise to me at the end, but fit neatly with the clues that Rowling had laid down along the way.
What I found particularly interesting about the book was its complicated and nuanced exploration of race in London society. Reading The Cuckoo’s Calling was a unique experience for me, since I am used to discussing black–white relations in an American context and confess that I don’t know much about how these issues play out in England today. One of the major plot points of the book is that Lula Landry is adopted by an upper class white family, but her biological father is black. Before her death, Lula was trying to get in touch with her roots by embracing her black heritage and trying to find out more information about her biological dad. Throughout the book, we are presented with a complicated picture of blackness: there’s the Caribbean immigrant who works as Lula’s doorman and whose son is fighting in Afghanistan; the American rapper whose songs discuss both sexy women and psychological techniques used in therapy; the ambitious chauffeur whose attempts at an acting career are marred by typecast parts as thug and drug addict; Lula’s homeless best friend; her flamboyant fashion designer; an African academic; and of course, the mysterious black man seen running away from the crime scene who is dismissed by the police as a petty car thief. These complex portrayals contrast with the blanket racism expressed by some of Lula’s family members and others among the elite social circles her family runs in. In The Cuckoo’s Calling, J. K. Rowling shows great care and talent in discussing a complex and sensitive subject. Now if only she’d bring some of that care and talent into more of the work she’s been doing lately in the Harry Potter universe….
Have you read The Cuckoo’s Calling? What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments!