Cormoran Strike is in a bad place. He owes money to his deadbeat rockstar father, his girlfriend has just left him, and he’s living on a fold-out cot in the inner office of his private detective agency. To make matters worse, he’s neglected to properly cancel his contract with the temp agency, and they’ve sent along a new temp, whom he can’t afford.
The temp, meanwhile, has been having a great week. Robin Ellacott’s boyfriend has just proposed, she’s caught up in an ecstatic whirl of wedding planning, and she’s just landed a temp job at a detective agency. Nobody knows, but Robin has always secretly been fascinated by detective work.
On Robin’s very first day, Cormoran is asked to take on a case for John Bristow, brother of famous model Lula Landry. A short while back, Lula was found dead on the sidewalk next to her apartment building, having presumably jumped– but her brother believes she was pushed, and wants Cormoran to find out why.
It should be no surprise that Rowling does mystery well– each of her Harry Potter books contained a mini-mystery or mysteries that led up to Harry’s final confrontation. But in this book, Rowling juggles various elements with a more practiced aplomb, a neat-handedness that wasn’t as evident in her most famous works to date. She gives us a page-turning mystery novel that stands on its own alongside an informative, but not excessively expository, introduction to the protagonist of what will be a series of novels.
Cormoran Strike, as the down-on-his luck former war hero wallowing just a bit in self-pity, seems in the abstract like someone we’ve seen before. Rowling uses his physicality to distinguish him and bring him to life. The descriptions of him as being a large, imposing man with coarse, curly hair (they called him “pube-head” in high school), and something of a Resting Surly Face, fix him in the reader’s mind, and Rowling follows this through by showing other characters’ reactions to his intimidating presence. He regularly showers in a gym to which he doesn’t belong and is never questioned because of the authoritative manner in which he enters the facility. When Strike is alone, he nurses his private weakness: a below-the knee prosthesis on one leg, in replacement of the leg he lost in an explosion while at war. The descriptions of the way he mistreats himself physically mirror his emotional shame over where he currently finds himself in life.
The relationship between Strike and Ellacott is slow at first, but built to last. Ellacott, though younger, friendlier, and more optimistic than Strike, has at her core the same kind of energetic zeal that compels Strike to do whatever it takes to gather clues. He first notices that she is organized and efficient, then that she is a kind and tactful person, and finally that she is intelligent and has a natural flair for detective work. Ellacott, for her part, looks at Strike’s current state of financial and emotional depression, and instead of disdaining or pitying him, respects his commitment to being self-sufficient. She looks past his messy office and personal life, and sees the order inherent to his thought process and manner of attacking a case. Rowling leaves their relationship, and their individual characters, plenty of room to grow in future installments of her series.
The Cuckoo’s Calling, for all the turns of its plot, is in itself a simple novel. There are no technical acrobatics here; things happen one after the other, the clues build up, and Strike lays it all out for us in a long explanation near the end. Yet the inevitability of progress is immensely satisfying and always fun. It’s likely each Cormoran Strike novel to come will be of the same stamp. We’ll always know what we’re in for, and we’ll be happy to get it.