Confession time: I’ve never actually read any Harry Potter (though I did make my way slowly through the films), nor did I do more than pick up and casually glance through A CASUAL VACANCY in a bookshop. So THE CUCKOO’S CALLING represents my very first exposure to the writing of J.K. Rowling. I have to say that one has to doff one’s cap as to the sheer readability of what we have here. She really does know how to carve a story, centre it on a couple of well-drawn characters, and then keep it charging along, shaking it up every so often to keep it interesting.
Our hero is Comoran Strike, a one-legged, war veteran, private detective (also a large man, named after a mythical Cornish giant). Along with his new temporary secretary, Robin, he finds himself investigating the death of a famous supermodel, Luna Landry. This trip from a beaten up office in Soho, to the rarefied circles of fame and fashion, offers a neat line in contrasts – as well as plenty of suspicious characters with their own agendas. There are unscrupulous film producers, coked-up trophy wives, wastrel actor boyfriends and bitchy fashion designers. There are also less than trustworthy solicitors, which given that this was exposed as the work of Rowling through the loose lips of her lawyers, makes for an interesting ripple.
A nice touch is that Comoran is himself the illegitimate, neglected son of a famous rock-star, this gives him an in with the famous people he meets as they at least know his dad – even if he really doesn’t. His distant links to fame work well in this novel, but reading this I wasn’t sure what Rowling was going to do with that part of the character in the sequel, unless of course there’s the intention for Strike to frequently investigate the seedier parts of fame and fortune. (The sequel is about a missing novelist.) That may make him a strange private detective, one who belies his run-down Soho office by scarcely ever dealing with real people. But then I suppose it wouldn’t be without precedent. On the other side of the Atlantic we had Lieutenant Columbo, an LA homicide cop who never investigated drive-by shootings, but instead spent his time banging up rich bastards. Perhaps that quasi-socialist path is the one Rowling will happily send Strike down
So top marks for readability, but this is perhaps not the most memorable book I’ve ever come across. Its workings are a bit too apparent, some of the strands fell into predictable grooves, and the actual whodunit wasn’t as big a reveal as it could have been. (I did enjoy though that this is a private eye novel which starts and finishes by referencing the magazine, PRIVATE EYE.) However despite those flaws, it’s an entertaining, well-written yarn with strong characters, which shows off just why J.K. Rowling is just so damned successful.