I should have realized earlier that the first four Harry Potter books are essentially mystery stories. Harry, Ron, and Hermione collect clues, J.K. throws us for a twist, and the mystery is solved. I loved the thrill of completing those books for the first time, of being delightfully horrified that Voldemort was attached to the back of Professor Quirrell’s head, or that Mad Eye Moody was Barty Crouch Jr. in disguise. These books proved Rowling has a knack for mystery stories, and The Cuckoo’s Calling is another example of her marvelous talent.
The Cuckoo’s Calling has a distinctly different feel than Rowling’s last novel, The Casual Vacancy, although it’s hard for me to put my finger on the reason why. It may be because so much of TCV’s plot was concerned with social commentary—while I sympathized with those characters, and very much enjoyed the book, it was impossible to forget that the novel had very prominent political and cultural connotations. With Cuckoo’s Calling, the characters are just as real, just as compelling, but Rowling seems to have re-immersed herself in the joy of pure storytelling. Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott are easy to root for—each is clever, brave, kind, and flawed.
The point of view is a close third, Rowling’s standby, and the chapters alternate between focusing on Robin, Cormoran’s temp secretary who has always secretly desired to solve mysteries, and Cormoran himself, the detective who is also a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. The novel is populated with a colorful cast of characters that Cormoran and Robin encounter as they investigate the death of supermodel Lula Landry, ranging from the designer who claims Lula was his muse to Cormoran’s beautiful and volatile ex-lover Charlotte (who’s a sure bet to turn up in the sequel arriving next summer!). The book is a quick and engaging read, and reaching the final pages and discovering whodunit was an utter delight, and if it didn’t completely blow me away, it was still a satisfying and unexpected conclusion to the novel. The Cuckoo’s Calling isn’t a masterpiece, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery romp, and does an excellent job of establishing two main characters that readers will be excited to hear more about in the coming installments.
Also present in the book are some telltale signs of J.K.’s stances on social and political issues, and, as always, she is very progressive. You’d never know it from the American cover (that’s an issue I’d like to take up with the publishers), but the supermodel in question is half black. It shouldn’t be a big deal that the beautiful, successful, revered, and widely mourned young woman at the center of this novel is a person of color, but somehow, even in 2013, it’s not something that happens very often, and I can’t help but love Jo for the fact that Lula isn’t white. Further, the fact that it was hard for Lula to be raised both mixed race and in an adoptive family isn’t glossed over—it’s a key issue in the book. Jo’s never been afraid to challenge norms, and one of the joys of this book is that she adds progressive elements to her story flawlessly. Characters addicted to drugs or on welfare are depicted unflinchingly and with compassion, with all the full reality of their humanity.
And so, even though I said just a couple of paragraphs ago that this book isn’t a political commentary in the way that The Casual Vacancy was, it does have vital social themes that run beneath the narrative. The same is true of Harry Potter—just think of S.P.E.W., the power of love, or the pointless prejudice against those who aren’t pure bloods. I know that J.K. Rowling wanted to stay Robert Galbraith a little bit longer, and I can certainly understand why. I know I can never understand the pressure that she must go through every day, especially when she is publishing something that has nothing to do with Harry Potter. But I can’t be sorry that having her name attached to this book has increased its sales 507,000%, because that means more people will read it. Small steps like acknowledging the issues of growing up as a mixed-race person in popular fiction, in MEGA-popular fiction, is a big deal. You only have to look at the Cheerios commercial from a couple of months ago to see it. At the same time, it’s not the POINT of the book, which I also love, because it means Jo has normalized it. The point is that The Cuckoo’s Calling is a very fine book—one that, in my opinion, is the first in what is going to become a beloved series of mystery novels.