The Bookseller's fiction previewer Cathy Rentzenbrink writes...
Having just finished The Cuckoo’s Calling by J K Rowling (Sphere), I can report that it is a cracking read with great characters, and I turned the pages with increasing eagerness through to its very satisfying ending.
The first time I tried it, back in December 2012 when the author was a debut novelist called Robert Galbraith, I read the prologue and the first chapter and then stopped. It was one of the 93 titles submitted for the April New Fiction feature for The Bookseller. I liked the AI sheet with its mention of the intriguingly named Cormoran Strike enough to request a manuscript but the opening pages did not lure me in quite as much as those of the 12 books I went on to finish that month did.
I remember thinking that the prologue, which describes the immediate aftermath of the fatal fall of a beautiful model with perceptive swipes at our fame-obsessed media, was stronger than the first chapter. I found Robin, the airheaded, marriage-obsessed temp we meet in the first chapter, a bit irritating. I loathe the expression “to pop the question”. There is an awkward point of view switch where we see Robin through lingering male eyes and find out she is strawberry blonde and curvaceous. I stopped reading after 18 pages. A bit harsh? I have to be. I’m a fast reader but I can’t read 93 novels a month so I am more often looking for reasons to stop reading than to carry on.
Other readers did carry on and the novel achieved some good reviews and had sold less than 500 copies in hardback up until the moment we found out the identity of its author.
There are vast amounts of well-reviewed books that don’t sell because there are more good books published than there are people who want to read them. Having read all of it today, I’m happy to say that The Cuckoo’s Calling is very good indeed. Cormoran lives up to his name, Robin turns out to be a highly engaging and resourceful young woman and I’m already looking forward to the next novel in the series as I’m sure we will be discovering more about her back story.
As ever, with J K Rowling, the story surrounding the story achieves a narrative drive of its own and I’m sure we will all be debating everything around this highly exciting revelation for days. I’m fascinated to find out more about the decision to publish pseudonymously and about the timing of the reveal and how it came about. The bit I don’t buy is the idea that someone chose to investigate it because the novel is too accomplished to be a debut. There are bundles of accomplished debuts.
Fun to look at it the other way around, though, and wonder how many recent novels by big name authors would pass a blind taste test with flying colours?
And the 12 novels I finished? Their authors may never achieve JK levels of fame and fortune but this reviewer liked their first 18 pages or so more than J K Rowling’s…
Graeme Simsion The Rosie Project
Mary Beth Keane Fever
Carlene Bauer Frances and Bernard
Taiye Selasi Ghana Must Go
Michel Rostain The Son
Julie Cohen Dear Thing
Claire McGowan The Lost
Gordon Ferris Pilgrim Soul
Robert Goolrick Heading Out to Wonderful
Rebecca Wait The View on the Way Down
Henry Sutton My Criminal World
Paula Daly Just What Kind of Mother Are You?
The Cuckoo's Calling summary:
Beautiful model Lula Landry’s fatal fall from her Mayfair balcony is a press sensation but three months later the police have accepted it as a suicide and there seems no more to say. Lula’s brother John refuses to believe that she took her own life and, despite the rest of his wealthy family believing him to be operating under the delusions of grief, he hires Private Investigator Cormoran Strike to look for a murderer.
Former military policeman Cormoran has plenty of troubles of his own. At 35, he looks like an old man, he still feels pain in the lower leg that he lost on active service, and his explosive relationship with his fiancée Charlotte has juddered to a final halt, leaving him nursing his heartbreak on a camp bed on his office as he has nowhere to live. He has also accidentally retained the services of a temp he can ill afford, but, after an inauspicious start, the arrival of bright and resourceful Robin on the same day as a new client will mark an upward swing in his fortunes.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable high end thriller that reminded me of P D James. A large cast of rather unpleasant characters is well handled to provide us with the full spectrum of human faults and weaknesses: vanity, greed, laziness and self-interest abound on the suspect list, with Cormoran and Robin maintaining their far from perfect likeability as they take the first steps in a partnership that it will be interesting to see explored in future novels. As with all Rowling’s books since Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the novel gets better and better as it builds momentum, with some virtuoso writing in the later chapters. There are the familiar flashes of dark humour in this cocktail of compassion and cruelty.
There is much meat to pick over in The Cuckoo's Calling on the notion of fame and the corrosive effect on the soul on being an object of paparazzi desire. The epigraph, from Lucius Accius’ Telephus, is “Unhappy is he whose fame makes his misfortune famous.” During Lula's life, she tests her friends, telling them different bits of untrue gossip to see which snippet ends up in the press; and she buys cheap Nokias registered to other people so that she can have unrecorded conversations. When she is dead, the fame she earned due to her flawless beauty ensures that her reputation is endlessly and mercilessly dissected.
J K Rowling’s fame will ensure that now that the secret of its authorship is revealed, her respectably reviewed literary thriller becomes one of the most read and discussed books in the world. She does such a good job here of portraying the negative effects of fame and wealth that this does not appear to be a particularly enviable position.