You heard about this, right? Obscure first novel by an author nobody’s ever heard of. Gets good reviews; a few of the reviewers are struck by the assurance, confidence, competence of the writing. Nevertheless, the sales are dismal, and The Cuckoo’s Calling meets the fate of the vast majority of other novels, i.e. commercial failure. A recent New York Times story suggests that in U.S. sales hovered around 500 hardcovers sold.
Then, whoosh! A curtain is drawn back and “Robert Galbraith” is revealed to be, not a military veteran, but J.K. Rowling trying to sneak into the market and be assessed on her own merits as a writer and not on the basis of her immense fame. Instantly — the very same day Rowling is unmasked — the book hits the top of the Amazon best seller list. It’s still selling like hotcakes as an e-book but of course print versions aren’t to be had for love or money.
Well, heck, I was curious, aren’t you? And The Cuckoo’s Calling is a murder mystery, the kind of thing I read constantly anyway. In fact I would probably have read “Robert Galbraith’s” book months ago — if only I had known about it. But I didn’t, which just reinforces how inefficient book marketing is. Nevertheless, that inability to bring together readers and writers did permit Rowling to experience, for a few months, the average writer’s freedom to write without scrutiny or expectations.
And you know, once you’ve read The Cuckoo’s Calling, you may rethink the whole “rich and famous” trope, because in Rowling’s telling, it really isn’t much fun. Lula Landry is a supermodel who, on a snowy winter night, falls from a balcony in Mayfair and dies. The police call it suicide; her half-brother doesn’t accept the verdict. So he calls in a private detective, a tall hairy military veteran with the wonderful name of Cormoran Strike.
As a character, Strike is really good news. (Remember? Rowling’s great at this.) He served with the military police in Afghanistan. He lost part of a leg and left the armed forces. His private agency is failing, he’s just broken up with his poisonous but beautiful girlfriend, and this new case may keep him going a while longer, even if he is sleeping in the office. He reminds me of some of Dick Francis’s wounded heroes like Sid Halley, with a complex back story and a mind like a steel trap.
Cormoran is also far more appealing than he seems to grasp, because he gets an astounding variety of people to talk to him. Rowling’s description of a night out on the town, with supermodels and their hangers-on and the resultant mob of paparazzi, reminds us that this may be a familiar world to her. It’s a world of tapped cell phones and drivers on call and security guards. No privacy, and precious little sincerity. You can see how someone with Rowling’s fame would want to be anonymous from time to time.