I’m somewhat ashamed, but I didn’t read The Cuckoo’s Calling as soon as it came out. I was wary of being disappointed as I had been by Casual Vacancy. But I am beyond thrilled to say that Cuckoo’s Calling is a return to form for Jo, a spectacularly written mystery that utterly engrossed me! And I’m not even that into mysteries and crime novels; I’ve barely read any since my Hardy Boys phase in elementary school.
I will keep this review as spoiler-free as I can, and I will write a second piece shortly dealing with all the “spoilery” stuff.
The book’s premise is a fairly simple one – Cormoran Strike is a down-on-his luck private detective, with a new temporary secretary (Robin) whom he cannot afford. He is hired by John Bristow to investigate the death of John’s adopted sister, supermodel Lula Landry, who fell to her death from a balcony. Officially, people think she committed suicide, but John believes it was murder. We follow Strike and Robin as they investigate, tracking down and speaking to the myriad colorful characters who were in Lula’s life and slowly piecing together the story of Lula’s entire last day alive. Even though this is supposedly a series, the book works as a standalone, with the murder resolved at the end.
Rowling is definitely in her wheelhouse here. Many of the Harry Potter novels are mysteries at heart, in particular the second and fourth books. This book reminded me a lot of Goblet of Fire in particular – which, though not my favorite, I do consider the best-written of the series. We’re fairly certain that a crime has been committed, but we’re totally fuzzy on the who, the how, and the why. Most of the characters are slightly suspicious; many are hiding their own secrets, and even the nice ones you have to suspect because you know it is Jo at work.
The mystery kept me guessing the entire way through, and I didn’t figure out who the murderer was. The answer didn’t come out of left field – I’d considered the possibility early on, then dismissed it as very unlikely, and then got really shocked by the twist. Jo is far more subtle here than in Sorcerer’s Stone – there’s no one suspect whom it obviously seems to be since she knows we’d know never to trust that. Instead, she keeps us guessing the whole time, throwing red herrings at us left and right.
So that’s already a huge step up from Casual Vacancy: There’s a coherent plot! And in true Rowling fashion, there are subplots to keep us interested – Strike’s financial woes and mess of a personal life, for example – but the book is far more streamlined than the HP books.
An interesting thing Jo does is have her characters know far more than the reader. Strike solves the mystery at about the 2/3 mark in the book, but we are not privy to the solution until it is unveiled at the very end. This has the potential to be disastrous – in fact, the one time Jo tried this in HP, the result was perhaps the clumsiest passage in the series. I am referring to the chapter in Half-Blood Prince where Harry pretends to spike Ron’s pumpkin juice with Felix Felicis and lets Hermione catch him so that Ron would get a confidence boost. There was almost a slight sense of betrayal during that passage – having been inside Harry’s head for so many years, we expect to be privy to all his thoughts, and this just felt wildly out of place.
It’s a mark of Jo’s increased writing prowess that this didn’t bother me in TCC. Of course, I’d not yet spent 3,000 pages inside Strike’s head, so the covenant between book and reader was not as firm, yet… but the book is still written in fairly close third person. I think part of what helped this be a non-issue is that Strike is a very secretive person. Harry has a lot of secrets, but all of them are shared with someone, so nothing is ever withheld from the reader, whereas Strike is much more of a loner, keeping all of his secrets clutched to his chest, so it makes sense he wouldn’t share with us.
The other thing that helps is Robin’s perspective. Half of the book is told from her point of view, and Strike keeps her in the dark just as much as us. We identify with her ignorance and curiosity, which keeps us relating to the protagonists.
And talk of perspective; it doesn’t float in this book! One of my biggest complaints in Casual Vacancy was the perspective jumping from character to character with no rhyme or reason. In TCC , the perspective switches between Strike and Robin, but these switches are very clearly delineated, and there was no confusion because the two have very distinct points of view.
Jo does a great job populating this world with characters, and there are even likable characters! Unlike TCV, which was entirely about awful people, Cuckoo’s Calling has characters I liked and related to. Jo said in a video message played at the Scholastic Store at the recent cover unveiling, “I still think that it was the characters fundamentally that made people fall in love with the world,” referring to HP. She is absolutely right; her characters are wonderful in HP and in TCC as well. These are people whom I wanted to spend time with, instead of feeling like that dysfunctional extended family that I probably should see once a year but really don’t want to.
I will do a thorough character analysis in a separate piece that will include all the spoilers, but I’ll quickly say that Jo did everything right. The two protagonists are likable, flawed, and interesting. They are surrounded by a motley collection of people, some of whom are likable and some of whom are horrible; some are layered enigmas and some are totally straightforward. Will they become our best friends like the trio? No, but they’ll be lots of fun to read about.
Even better, these are characters that relate to each other in a good ways. One of the things that made HP magical was the friendship she wrote between Harry, Ron, and Hermione. While there’s nothing of that magnitude in TCC, there is the central relationship between Strike and his secretary Robin. After some very poor first impressions, they first develop a healthy respect for each other, and then a friendship slowly grows between them. Some of my favorite scenes in the book are those with the two of them.
There is a scene in the epilogue (which is much more satisfying than the DH epilogue) where Strike presents her with a gift. This was such a great scene; it gave me those warm-and-fuzzies that I so often feel when reading HP. One can’t have good books with emotional detachment, and there is none here – I already deeply care about Strike and Robin, and we’re only one book in!
Also, thank you, Jo, for not creating a romance between Strike and Robin! It would have been all too easy, and all too predictable, to have them get together. As a guy with a lot of female friends I am not attracted to, I am deeply appreciative of all books that portray platonic guy-girl friendships. And one of the best platonic friendships in literature is Harry and Hermione, because they would go to the ends of the earth for each other, but there is never any hint of romance between them (sorry Harmonians!).
Of course, it’s possible Strike and Robin will get together in later books, and I’m sure an ardent shipping contingent will be praying they do so. But I’m 99% positive they won’t because Jo would have started planting little clues and seeds in the first book if they were, and I didn’t see any despite there being a lot of opportune moments. Just think how early the Harry/Ginny hints started dropping, to say nothing of the “anvil-sized hints” for Ron/Hermione. So I’m placing my bets now on no Strike/Robin romance! Readers, place your bets, too.
Make no mistake, The Cuckoo’s Calling is an adult book. There is swearing, there is sex, there are a lot of adult themes going on, there are drugs and alcohol and smoking… in short, everything requisite in an adult novel. The difference is that here, unlike in TCV, it works. The swearing makes sense in the context, and while copious, it’s never overpoweringly so; I still understood everything the characters were saying, with all the curses thrown in. And while we still get plenty of description about all kinds of adult things like nipples and other parts of the body, we are mercifully exempt from the disgusting imagery that was so prevalent in TCV. I’m guessing that since Jo wrote under a pseudonym, she didn’t feel like she had to prove anything and therefore let the adult content come naturally.
The world is wonderfully realized. I have less than zero interest in fashion, but Jo really makes the whole world of fashion come alive, along with the distant world of the famous and those trying to become so. A good writer can make a reader invested in something they have no knowledge of and no interest in, and here Jo succeeds spectacularly.
Lastly, though I know hindsight is 20/20, this is so obviously a Rowling book! I don’t know how anyone reading it didn’t pick up on it right away. I’d just finished rereading Deathly Hallows when I launched into this, and within the first five pages I could tell Jo had written it – everything about it screamed “Jo,” from the imaginative descriptions to her unique voice. It felt cozy, listening to a familiar voice tell me a new story. I’d missed that experience over the last five years, and I enjoyed every second that I was reading Cuckoo’s Calling.
In conclusion, this book is everything I had hoped for in Jo’s adult novels, everything Casual Vacancy should have been. I just wish this one had come out first, before Jo’s reputation got somewhat tarnished by TCV. I believe most readers who love HP will enjoy this book, despite the difference in genre, and I certainly plan to reread it. There are enough clues and details that I think a reread will be a rewarding experience. Now bring on Book 2!