The Cuckoo’s Calling -A Review

“The dead could only speak through the mouths of those left behind, and through the signs they left scattered behind them.”

Cuckoos‘J. K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith’, proclaims a round, black sticker on the volume of The Cuckoo’s Calling, and indeed, that is the reason I have read this crime fiction, seeped in the atmosphere of London. I am loath to take refuge behind paucity of time and money for ignoring débutante writers, God knows I have read many, but the sad truth is that it is so, more so in the case of crime fiction, whose basic premise is to uphold natural justice by bringing about the downfall of the delinquent. And I am sick of both prevalence of crime and absence of justice.

Also, I seem to be too besotted by the denizen of 221B Baker Street for my own good. The laser sharp detective seems to have ruined all my future encounters with those of his trade.

Looking back to the series of adventures featuring Sherlock Holmes, I realize how deep an understanding of the human mind, of common emotions like love, hate, anger, jealousy, greed and revenge, that inimitable, redoubtable detective had, not to speak of his scorching, scientific mind. Little was known, however, of his own personal life, except for the scrapes managed by rather ordinary but lovable Dr Watson.

Here we have then, by contrast, a detective who has had a very disturbed childhood, a tarnished love life and a leg partly blown away in Afghanistan. His emotional, physical and financial mess call for detailed volumes in their own right and naturally, a substantial part of the story is dedicated to the agonies of this gent, Coromoran Strike, and that is what he is called.  Discarded son of a rock-star, his entire worldly possessions consist of four boxes of trash outside the landing of his office whose rents have remained unpaid for a serious length of time. He receives death threats every Monday, sleeps in a camp bed in his office, eats Pot Noodle and washes himself surreptitiously in ULU washrooms.  Needless to say, it adds layers of richness and colours to the book, and thus it is often that the detective himself is the focus of the narrative rather than the main story which doesn’t seem to pick up pace till rather late in the book.

It all begins one chilly London night when the monotony of snow covered road is shattered by Lula Landry, a feted model, who plunges to her death from her third floor penthouse apartment. The biracial, sculpted beauty, who was a ‘delicate shade of Café au lait’, had been modelling full time since seventeen. She had been a raging success, earning a fortune for herself in a short time. A drug lord turned a rapper had made her part of his songs. However, there was a price to pay for her extreme popularity. She was constantly tailed by the paparazzi and her mobile phones were hacked often, leaving her feeling permanently hounded.

Hailing from questionable quarters, Lula was adopted by the white, uber class Bistrows who had just lost one of their sons in a horrible accident. Her new mother Lady Yvette was insanely possessive of her but she was spurned by some in the family. Frantically searching for her roots later in her life, Lula had managed to unearth her biological mother much to the disgrace of the adoptive family. Could that have led to her untimely demise?

The investigation proceeds in the old, classic style and the suspects are interrogated one by one, some voluntarily and some not so willingly. “By nature methodical and thorough, Strike had been trained to investigate to a high and rigorous standard. First, allow the witness to tell their story in their own way: the untrammelled flow often revealed details, apparent inconsequentialities that would later prove invaluable nuggets of evidence. Once the first gush of impression and recollection had been harvested, then it was time to solicit and arrange facts rigorously and precisely: people, places, property…” Then there is the power of Google that his energetic assistant Robin uses to telling effect.

 J. K. Rowling’ mastery of creating eccentric but believable characters is at full display here. The cast come from varied strata of the society, the seedy biological mother of Lula, the poor black friend from rehab, the fashion designer friend with diamond-studded ears, her off-and-on lover Evan Duffield, the high society of the Bristows, May and Bestiguis and the distraught brother John who just can’t believe that Lula could have killed herself, as concluded by the inquest –there is always the obtuse Police. To be sure, a hooded, tall black man, appears and disappears in and out of the street CCTV camera before and after Lula tumbled to death.

Rowling puts the reader unmistakably in the present day London with its mixture of the old and the modern, the ornate Victorian facades of the buildings and the gleaming glass architecture, the bustling streets, parks, gardens, cafeteria, dance clubs and the quieter elegance of the affluent sections. She takes us to the less prosperous districts of the city without batting an eyelid and the reader is none the poorer. The events unfold alongside London at a leisurely pace and the characters pop to life slowly but surely. Yes, it doesn’t scorch the street as it moves ahead or around but the narrative doesn’t lose its grip. And although it’s not too hard to sniff the killer, the denouement is fairly fulfilling, even if convoluted in a maze of alibis.

J. K. Rowling has promised to return to Denmark Street, the abode of her new hero, and I understand sequels are already in works. Obviously, the cuckoo’s calling with more of that but whether you’d want to listen more may depend on how you like the rugged, limping war veteran in his first outing. To the question whether I’d have detected J K Rowling’s imprint in this book were I to not know of her authorship, I have to say ‘No’ to the writer of the Harry Potter series, but ‘Yes’ to the writer of The Casual Vacancy. Her invocation of the drug-abusing squatters and low-lifers and their dialect is a tell-tale mark. Cormoran Strike’s childhood is faintly reminiscent of Krystal Weedon too, the girl in her previous book. And it may sound factious but the titles of the two books contain three words each with common first letters of the first two words!

The Cuckoo’s Calling
by J. K. Rowling
Pages: 449


  1. How interesting that JK Rowling is writing under another name, but I suppose lots of writers do that. Seems like it’d be difficult to come up with a whole new style of writing. Anyway, you’ve done a marvelous job on this review.

    1. I am not surprised, Kris. Isn’t it the fear of failure, kind of egg on one’s face if the book is badly received? That also brings to fore the mountains in the path of the débutante writers. You may be aware how Doris Lessing ‘s pseudonymous novel was famously turned down by a group of editors in their weekly meeting at Cape, circa 1980. The book in question was none other than The Diary of a Good Neighbour.

  2. This is a book I’d really like to read someday, particularly after reading your review. As for J.K. Rowling using another name, she said she wanted to write “without hype or expectation.” I get it, considering the heavy weight those Harry Potter books bring. They’re brilliant!

    1. But of course, Janene! The brilliance of Harry Potter series is what pulls me to her books. Do read it, then. Somehow, I don’t buy Rowling’s logic there. Maybe there are other books too authored by her languishing in the stores…

  3. Great review US ! I was also keen to know, how the new genre of books would pan out. And its equally interesting to know that you couldn’t detect traces of Harry Potter- style of writing.
    PS: In the 6th line, should the word be refuge instead of refuse ?

    1. Yes, that is refuge -one more sign I’m getting lazy (and old)! Thanks, Ash.

      It is simpler to be wise in hindsight and I have come upon a few pundits who could establish links between the Harry Potter series and the books. I don’t buy into that logic, however. That said, stylistics can’t be very different.

  4. The involvement of detective’s life is the most fascinating part. I have not read one like that. I see from amazon this book is extremely popular. I usually don’t have good luck with most of those but I will love to give it a try.

    1. You may like it Yun and what’s more, it’s just the beginning of the series. Wonder how popular that book would have been but for Rowling’s name!

  5. Interesting review. I wonder why JKR has to hide her true self. Does she really believe the world of publication is so horribly male dominated that even true talents will not be able to gather a footing irrespective of their gender?

  6. This is one book you reviewed and I will be reading Uma – thanks to TF presenting it to me for my fiftieth 🙂 In the normal course the books you review sail light-years above my intellectual ken 🙂

  7. Merits of the book apart, am I cynical in thinking that the pseudonym was a carefully orchestrated marketing ploy? After all “The Cuckoo’s Calling” became the publishing sensation of the summer when word leaked that its first-time author, Robert Galbraith, was none other than JKR.
    But damn it, the author is JKR, so will have to read it. And maybe that was the author’s intent – to be read without the Wizard intruding on the reader’s consciousness.

  8. Your cynicism seems well-founded, Subroto. Whatever the outcome, the fact remains that all those who appreciated the Harry Potter saga will feel drawn to The Cuckoo’s Calling, just as you say. I am not sure about the sequels though.

  9. Actually, i am in no minds whether to read this one or not. I am a HP fanatic, make no mistake. But for some reason, I skipped TCV. This one is a mystery, though, as you rightly said, cannot quite match the charm of the tales scripted by Doyle. Personally, i enjoy murder mysteries set in old eras, as was the case with Doyle and with Agatha later on.

    1. Ritzy, while ‘old era’ tales have their charm, it depends on the teller -Jim Crace comes to mind. But Google searches quite pinch the baloon in the work in question. I say, where are the thrills of well earned information?

  10. Though I’ve read just 2 of the HP books I am smitten by JKR’s multidimensional characters(which I heard weakened at the cost of increased ‘adventurous’ later books). Did you get the feel of being transported to the old and smelly London in this books? Did you root for any one character? Jules Verne’s books will always be remembered for transporting me either next to a fire spewing volcano or deeply-pressurized vessel at a sea bed.
    Quality review as ever.

    1. Arzvi, Rowling can flesh out her characters remarkably well but I couldn’t root for any here. London is well invoked and it is firmly set in the present times. Yet, somehow it all sounds so routine. Thanks for those words.

  11. Hi Uma, Terrific review! I have to tell you that while reading your review I was beginning to think I’d rather read your writing than Ms. Rowlings. 🙂 While I am very happy for all her well deserved success, I could not get through the HP books. It’s really more about my feelings about the genre than her writing so I may give this one a shot. Thanks!

    1. Now that’s a mammoth of a compliment, John, not that Ms. Rowling is going to take it kindly! Fortunately for us, she doesn’t frequent these corners of the Internet. 🙂 I guess this one book is going to settle the issue of liking her writing to some of us.

  12. Seems like a promising work, Umashankar. I kept wondering what J K Rowling would do after completion of the Harry Potter series. But she does seem to have more aces up her sleeve.

  13. Uma, excellent review – that is, the review itself is excellent. Not that the book is excellent. I’m not much interested in this genre except for a few exceptional writers like the original J.J. Marric and the Gideon series and, of course, A.C. Doyle whom you mention and Agatha Christie. We seem to have gone from the pleasure of puzzle-solving (whodunit?) to the angst of the detective. Nothing wrong with a book about that angst, but it’s mixing genres and that’s not appealing to me.

    Glad to hear from you…

    1. Thanks for the encouraging compliment, Miss Molly.

      Rowling has surely mixed stories here, leaving her distinct footprint on the genre. I have a feeling she is readying for a long haul with Coromoran Strike, her new hero. Oh, she will always have a following, regardless of the readers’ acceptance of the detective. Personally, I’d be less incline to pick up another installment.

  14. Excellent overview and review, Uma.
    Many writers, past and present, have used pseudonyms, some successfully and some not so successfully. Here, we’ve seen Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, Nora Roberts and many others try it, at least for awhile. Perhaps Rowling will find a completely new series for her writing.

    1. Each may have had their own very personal reasons, even though the act may appear the same at its face. My own favourite was Charles Lamb whose ‘Essays of Elia’ becons me again and again.

      Many thanks to you, Marylin.

  15. I enjoyed this book, too. I thought the characters were great, perhaps even more so than the mystery itself. I did feel it got bogged down by too much description–I did not need to know the color of every lamp–but I will definitely read more in the series.

    Thanks for visiting my blog. I appreciate it!

  16. “convoluted in a maze of alibis” Haha, I liked this book; and not only because I’m built to love anything written by Rowling. It may be because I’m not an avid mystery reader and the suspense (or the lack of it) wasn’t why I read it. The characterization is classic J.K.Rowling. I loved all the interactions between Cormoran and Robin and would read the sequel, if only for them.

    1. I am glad you liked the wily detective and his assistant. And I am sure sequels are in order, even if I doubt the popularity they’d have met had Rowling’s authorship not been revealed. Many thanks for stopping by.

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