The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's CallingIntroducing Cormoran Strike, the only detective named after a badly spelled seabird attack (this joke is copyright Mrs Puzzle Doctor, btw), a down-on-his-luck London-based private detective. Newly dumped by his fiancée, heavily in debt, his luck seems to be changing. A new temporary receptionist shows some talent and interest in detective work and, more importantly, he’s actually got a case.

An old school friend hires him to investigate the death of his sister, the model Lula Landry, a death that everyone had considered suicide. After all, she threw herself from her balcony and the witnesses confirm that there could have been no one in the flat. But his friend insists that there was no way that Lula would have killed herself – and Cormoran does need the money. But as he investigates, he starts to piece together what could be the perfect murder. But is the murderer’s work finished?

OK, first off, yes, I know who Robert Galbraith actually is, but I’m not going to go there – just going to review this one on its merits as a detective novel.

Way back when I started this blog, you may recall that the point was to find an author who was writing “proper” detective novels amidst the sea of serial killer thrillers masquerading as mysteries that populate the shelves of your local bookshop. I’ve found a number of authors who fit the category, most writing in the historical genre. But I’m not sure I’ve found one who fits what I was looking for as closely as Galbraith.

There is a clear love for the genre apparent in the construction of the narrative here, from the set-up – sort of a locked room, but, quite rightly, never treated as such – to the interrogation of the many diverse suspects and witnesses to the final reveal, which obviously I won’t spoil, but it uses a trick that I don’t recall Dame Agatha using. It’s a complex mystery, with lots of small oddities only making sense when the whole picture is revealed.

The tone settles down after a somewhat shaky start – early on, Strike seems to be being portrayed as a comic character (albeit one who can magically watch Spurs vs Arsenal at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon on a portable TV with an indoor aerial!) whereas as the book settles down, he gains more depth, delving into his past and what has brought him to this point in his life – not a vast amount on why he’s become a detective though – maybe in Book Two. Another odd point is the early introduction of Robin, his receptionist/assistant who seems to be being set up as the POV character only to quickly take a back seat as we follow Strike around as he talks to all of the people involved in the case. I presume that she’ll take a larger role in the next book but as the most defined female character, I was surprised to see so little of her.

I’ll have to put a couple of caveats though. The detective-talks-to-everyone-and-then-solves-the-case isn’t my favourite iteration of the detective novel, although credit to Galbraith for only getting Strike to talk to each character once – I hate it when someone reveals something on the second or third interrogation that they kept back for no good reason. But this does go on a bit too long for my liking. That’s a personal gripe, but I’m sure that others may agree with the other problem I had – for the story to work, the murderer has to do something monumentally stupid which is never rationalised beyond its stupidity being pointed out. I’d worked out – ok, guessed – the killer’s identity but dismissed my idea because of this as I couldn’t find a rational explanation for the thing, and, after finishing the book, I still can’t.

But this is a strong first effort in the mystery genre with a real attempt to bring the classic mystery novel into the modern era. While I think some of the plaudits on the Amazon page (and in the preface to the book) are a trifle hyperbolic, this is well worth a look – the ebook is only a couple of quid – and I’ll look forward to the next one. Recommended.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, Cormoran is the name of a giant from Cornish mythology – it’s not a made-up name, although this is the only instance I can find of a non-giant being called Cormoran.

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17 comments

  1. The detective’s name IS offputting. It’s unusual enough that I think you’re much more likely to parse it as the joke reading first time round.

    Like the other hundred books in my precarious To Read Pile, I’ve had this for at least a year without picking it up. Glad to hear it’s worth a look. I’ve heard mixed reports, but none from mystery fans.

    I know you don’t want to get into the pseudonym business, but I really don’t think this qualifies as the author’s “first” foray into the mystery genre.

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    • True. In fact I think book two of that series is a very well constructed and clued mystery. But this is a clear homage to the classic mystery. One unfortunately massive (for me) problem and about 100 pages too long but worth a try.

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      • That’s interesting that’s it’s got pacing issues. The later books in the author’s other series had the same problem, but there was always the assumption that this was the byproduct of being so popular: once you’re a big name, people are afraid to suggest strong edits.

        But my understanding was that this went through the publishing process completely pseudonymously. So I’d have expected much more stringent editing.

        There seems to be a generally slapdash approach to editing police procedurals. I’d say 90% of modern procedurals I read could be trimmed by 100 pages or more. I guess they’re so popular they’re guaranteed to sell anyway, and there still seems to be a weird notion that long books are “better value”. Maybe the move to ebooks will reverse this trend, but then ebooks seem to be treated with even MORE disregard. It’s a shame, because it holds back good books from being brilliant.

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  2. Whoever has given this mystery a bad rap is either trying to be cool or is jealous of this writer’s success. Those of us who love a great mystery welcome a new London PI and a ‘girl Friday’ who isn’t interested in changing him. Well drawn characters in a setting that comes alive scene by scene. No one writes dialogue better than this author. I highly recommend The Cuckoo’s Calling. I’m reading Silkworm now and happy to keep company with Cormoran Strike again. (Always appreciate this great blog and a post like this one that finds a mystery that deserves attention)

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    • Hear, hear! I enjoyed both books. I only hope the series never devolves into the “will they/won’t they” cliché. The two main characters, I think, are above that silliness. Or at least, they deserve better. I do kind of wish she’d dump the wet blanket fiancé, though.

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  3. I attempted to read this book, but I found it so dull with so much overwriting and so slow paced that I gave up after reading about one third.
    You say it is 100 pages too long. I say it is 200 pages too long !

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  4. I was lucky enough to see the author interviewed at the Harrogate crime writing festival this year and they did say that they wanted to write a crime novel that was more in line with the older style classics and from what you say, it is somewhat achieved. I have this on my kindle and need to get it read.

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  5. Great review, couldn’t agree more. The “detective talks to everyone” format did make it feel like it was plodding along for a large portion, and could have benefited from tighter pacing. Worth reading for fans of the genre nonetheless.

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