The Cuckoo’s Calling: JK Rowling’s Covert Military Strike

JK RowlingOn 9 July 2013, novelist India Knight tweeted that she had been enjoying reading The Cuckoo’s Calling, a modern private detective novel with a distinctly classical feel written by an enigmatic former military policeman named Robert Galbraith.  Someone replied to her tweet saying that Galbraith was none other than Harry Potter author and literary titan J.K. Rowling.  This piqued Knight’s curiosity, and she initiated her own detective investigation, which ultimately revealed that yes, Galbraith was indeed Rowling.  The tip-off tweet had come from the best friend of the wife of one of Rowling’s solicitors (who, in a display of conciseness any book editor would be proud of, had managed to trash his professional reputation in under 140 characters).  This big reveal unsurprisingly became a news story in its own right, and led to one of my favourite Daily Mash parody news items: JK Rowling recorded two dubstep albums as Burial.

Why this elaborate deceit on Rowling’s behalf?  I think it’s not hard to see why.  This way, readers were not bogged down with associations of wizards and wands and billion-dollar franchises when they first read the story.  And although Rowling has expressed regret that she didn’t get to enjoy the anonymity of being Galbraith for longer, she managed it long enough to win some stellar reviews, including a seal of approval from the queen of modern crime fiction, Val McDermid.  It has since gone on to sell over 1 million copies.

And deservedly so: it’s one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read.  Not that any of that initial acclaim persuaded me to read it.  I realise I’m an intolerant reader.  I’m extremely generous to cinema, by comparison, because even if the film is rubbish it should all be over in 90 minutes, but as a book is much more of a time investment I don’t even want to start it unless I think I’ll like it, and I get easily irritated.  (I have just stopped reading an extremely well-regarded popular science book because the author made a passing reference to witches being burnt in Salem, instead of being hanged, and then credited Christopher Columbus with discovering America — at that moment I concluded that (1) this author wasn’t ‘serious’, and (2) I am turning into my dad.)  Because novels are such an immersive art-form, I need to be able to trust that this artificial world is real before I can really start to care about what’s going on in it.  And it’s rare that I ever get past this barrier, particularly with genre fiction as prone to cliché as the private detective novel.  Only authors who go into the level of detail that John le Carré and Hilary Mantel do can pull this sort of thing off, in my opinion.  And yet, there was something about the way in which friends (and particularly my wife) recommended The Cuckoo’s Calling to me that made me think perhaps this might be one of those rare exceptions.

The story of The Cuckoo’s Calling had me intrigued from the start, but I was still waiting for some detail to jar and distract me.  And I don’t remember where I was in the story when I realised it, but I do remember the feeling of relief that okay, clearly, with this book I didn’t need to worry about being alienated by clichéd or underdeveloped writing, because this was written by someone who is a lot smarter than me, and has much higher standards of realism.  This was a story with deep detail and strong internal logic.  And from that point on I could just relax and enjoy it.

Realism, however, can be a double-edged sword.  I want a story to be completely plausible, and yet, like every impossible-to-please toddler of a reader, I don’t want it to be so plausible and realistic that it’s just boring.  I still want to be entertained.  If it’s a whodunit private detective story, I want there to be murder, sadism, obsession, menace.  I want there to be evil.  Even if it’s a little over-the-top.  And after being impressed by the attention to detail, the next thing that delighted me about this book was that Galbraith/Rowling gives good evil.  (Even more so in later books, as it happens.)  And not just from those who have actually ‘dun it’: the rogues’ gallery of suspects features plenty who casually do gloriously despicable things to those around them.  This ability to make evil seem convincing and grounded in reality means that The Cuckoo’s Calling is able to build up to a really satisfying climax.  (And I don’t want to give any spoilers here, but I have read a few complaints about how the ending ‘comes out of nowhere’, which I would argue is… kind of how a whodunit is supposed to work.)

So that’s the villains – what of the heroes?  The two lead protagonists are a tall, bulky Cornish-born private detective called Cormoran Strike (who reminds me of a grumpy Hagrid), and his partner-in-crime-fighting Robin Ellacott, a Yorkshire-woman in her twenties who joins him as a temp secretary but has secretly always yearned to be a private eye.

Initially, I thought Cormoran Strike was an annoying name (trying too hard to be iconic), but his unusual name is revealed to be the very plausible result of an unusual upbringing.  He is the son of a semi-famous rock groupie mother and a Mick Jagger-esque celebrity father, and he runs away first to Oxford and then the army, where he loses half of his leg to an IED in Afghanistan.  At first, he reminded me a little of Jackson Brodie from Kate Atkinson’s detective stories: ex-army turned private investigator.  But I think that Strike is a much more subtle character, and much more likeable, than Brodie’s much more conventional (and sometimes problematic) fictional private dick.  Strike then began to remind me more and more of one of my favourite literary creations, George Smiley, in that he takes his job extremely seriously and is clearly very good at it.  Strike, like Smiley, is a detective who detects, and this forms the backbone of the story: always following the same process of painstakingly gathering and filing any and all relevant information, until the complete picture eventually emerges.

Robin Ellacott is described by Rowling as possibly most loveable of all the characters she has written.  A kind, warm-hearted and down-to-earth person who is able to use a much more gentle but similarly effective skillset to coax information from witnesses and suspects.  (She also has a fiancé that even Rowling can’t stand.)  The Cuckoo’s Calling begins with her taking on the temp assignment as Strike’s secretary, and she effectively introduces us to Strike and his world.  Before long, she becomes an essential (strictly platonic) companion, saving him from his mistakes and flaws (and worse) as the story progresses.

The next most significant character, as with so much detective fiction, is the city which they work in: London.  Rowling has said that almost every location in The Cuckoo’s Calling is a real place, and that helps to give the book the feeling of being an instant classic.  The case that our two heroes find themselves caught up in involves some of the UK’s richest and most famous citizens, as well as some of its most impoverished and desperate.  We visit the most exclusive restaurants as well as neglected council estates.  The juxtaposing of these extremes is part of what makes the book such a compulsive read.  And although the circumstances that Strike and Ellacott find themselves in are frequently challenging and occasionally extreme, it is possibly the fact that they are both remarkably normal characters — mercifully free from the usual quirks and demons that make for badly written protagonists — that makes the eccentricities and occasional craziness of other characters seem believable.

Sadly, this contrast is the very thing lacking from the recent BBC adaptation, which seems to have airbrushed the darker and dirtier side of the Galbraith world.  Everything has a blandly glossy sheen to it.  The actors are all TV pretty (even the ones that are explicitly described as ugly), and this is a particular problem for Strike himself, who just lacks the gravitas of the character in the book.  And in this case I don’t believe it’s the actor’s fault.  In an interview with the Radio Times, the director said: “[The book] talked about his hair being wiry like pubes,” and he adds: “That wasn’t something that we thought would communicate as well on screen…”  Whereas the actor, Tom Burke, is then quoted as saying: “I did offer to get a perm!”  That was the dynamic that came across on the screen for me: good lead actors doing the best they can in a production led by an unimaginative team that just wants to make tame Sunday night TV out of a book they don’t seem to have that much faith in.

So if you saw the series on TV a couple of months ago, and thought it was a bit underwhelming, just wipe it from your mind and give the book a chance.  It is simultaneously much more extreme and yet much more low-key than the Beeb version suggests.

And it’s fun!  That’s the main thing.  It is a really enjoyable read.  Some books are gripping but the characters that you care about are going through such an ordeal the whole time that it feels like you’re constantly having a sympathy panic attack.  Whereas The Cuckoo’s Calling, whilst not short of menace and peril, is just a really satisfying experience.

In fact, it reminds me of another of my literary heroes, M R James, and an essay he once wrote on how to write the perfect ghost story.  I think his sensibility is the same:

Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view, I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake […] At the same time don’t let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, ‘the stony grin of unearthly malice’, pursuing forms in darkness, and ‘long-drawn, distant screams’, are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded…

(M.R. James, ‘Some Remarks on Ghost Stories’, The Bookman, December 1929.)

The Cuckoo’s Calling is reticent in its drama, in the best way, but stick with it and you won’t be short-changed.  Not if you like malevolence and terror, and the glare of evil faces.