Robert Galbraith, who is really J.K. Rowling, caps his debut mystery novel, which is really her ninth book, by channeling Alfred, Lord Tennyson. “I am become a name,” thinks the private eye Cormoran Strike to himself when the case is solved, quoting Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” Strike’s right—he is likely to become a “name,” especially now that the Sunday Times of London has unmasked his creator as the author of the stratospherically popular Harry Potter series. But what is Rowling up to, ending like that, with her main character musing about fame and “becoming” a name? Is it part of the act, a seemingly first-time writer anticipating his literary success with a metagesture? Or is Rowling teasing us with this name business, since the name on the book jacket is yet another disguise?
There’s something curious and fluid about the (often avian) names that keep cropping up in The Cuckoo’s Calling. Cormoran sounds like cormorant, the English seabird—appropriate given the “Ulysses” reference—but our hero also has an impressive collection of nicknames, including Pubehead and Stick. His sidekick-secretary Robin, whom he initially calls Sandra, occasionally styles herself Annabelle. Together they are investigating the death of supermodel Lula Landry, or Cuckoo, or Looly, the adopted daughter of the wealthy Bristow family who seems to have flung herself from a balcony—or was she pushed? You get the sense that, read correctly, all these names might unlock the book’s web of family allegiances, betrayals and enigmas. But they’re so slippery—a dropped syllable here, a switched consonant there. Identities are constantly mistaken or obscured.
Is it important that Strike, the son of rock star Jonny Rokeby, goes by a different name? Maybe to Rowling, famously reclusive, unfathomably wealthy, hiding behind the nobody Galbraith. What’s certainly important is that Strike is large, hirsute, usually battered and rumpled, with a face like “a young Beethoven who had taken to boxing.” Like “Galbraith,” he’s ex-military, an army cop, and when he’s not downing immense quantities of beer or sleeping on a cot in his office, he’s wandering about lost in thought, arranging the novel’s blur of testimony into a coherent timeline. (One of the great pleasures of The Cuckoo’s Calling, as with most detective stories, is observing the gumshoe’s Aha! moments, without being told what they are.) Strike lost part of his leg serving in Afghanistan. His prosthetic isn’t the only thing he shares with Harry Potter’s Mad-Eye Moody, the gruff but kind inspector who signs on to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts. (Strike’s got some Hagrid in him too, especially when he walks around with his shirt misbuttoned, and perhaps Rowling especially loves these oafish figures, who traipse through the brittle world of the rich like bulls in china shops.)
Actually, putting together Harry Potter and The Cuckoo’s Calling, it’s possible to infer a J.K. Rowling hierarchy of jobs. At the top sits police work: Remember how Harry became an Auror—a kind of magical law enforcement officer, one of the most prestigious careers in wizardry—after graduating? In this book, Robin, who stumbles into the field by accident, serves as the author’s mouthpiece. “To prove, to solve, to catch, to protect: these were things worth doing; important and fascinating,” she reflects. Next in the hierarchy come the lower-to-middle class people making an honest living: bartenders, temps, assistants. Then come the addicts and the homeless. Then come the rich. (Especially the women, who are vapid, nasty, scheming, and Botoxed—“wealth-seeking missiles,” in one memorable phrase.) Then come the journalists.
The Cuckoo’s Calling opens with press swarming around Lula’s apartment, poking their “long-snouted cameras” where they don’t belong. Later, Cormoran compares the flash of photography to the flare of an Afghani grenade. Princess Diana’s pursuit by the paps gets multiple references—and her exploitation continues when a tabloid-baiting fashion designer sticks her face on a T-shirt, “as a garish Mexican Madonna.” If a character expresses disdain for journalists, that’s code for readers to like him. The only thing more soulless than the desire for lucre, Rowling implies, is the grist that feeds these vultures: the desire for fame.
Yet for all that, money and general fabulousness does for The Cuckoo’s Calling what magic did for Harry Potter, creating an extravagant, alien, fascinating world for its characters to explore. Sometimes, the comparison is even explicit: At one point, Strike notes “how very little Rochelle had told him about Lula the person, as opposed to Lula the holder of the magic plastic cards that bought handbags, jackets and jewelry, and the necessary means by which Kieran appeared regularly, like a genie, to whisk Rochelle away from her hostel.” But where Harry Potter had to approach the underside of enchantment from an angle—its racist and classist dimension, as embodied by the “pureblooded” Malfoys—The Cuckoo’s Calling can be more direct. Relieved of the burden of allegory, it’s a lighter and less portentous read than the later Potter books. Having gone somewhat sour and querulous in 2012’s The Casual Vacancy, Rowling seems to have rediscovered her sense of fun.
Because The Cuckoo’s Calling is fun. Strike, Robin, and even Lula are immensely likable (their likability matched only by the unlikability of the poor journalists, who must have made Rowling’s life truly miserable). It sparkles with details only she could have invented: regular Monday death threats that arrive at Strike’s office on pink, kitten-covered stationery (perhaps filched from Delores Umbridge’s private stock?); a woman whose “sense of ill-usage wafted gently toward him like the smell of the bedridden.” If language in Harry Potter was just the delivery system for that series’ particular strain of drug, here it claims moments of occasional beauty (and takes occasional missteps—a paean to the “deathless breath of the city” made me gag, perhaps owing to the garbage truck driving by at precisely that moment). In any case, I’m inclined to forgive an author who describes one pair of heiresses as “life-size dolls recently removed from their cellophane boxes; rich-girl thin, almost hipless in their tight jeans, with tanned faces that had a waxy sheen especially noticeable on their foreheads, their long, gleaming dark manes with center partings, the ends trimmed with spirit-level exactitude.”
But where were we? The Cuckoo’s Calling and Harry Potter both feature dead or absent parents, adoptees, and family intrigue. They both imagine highly complex worlds that are nonetheless knowable—if you study their laws closely—and amusing, and beautiful, and dangerous. If I’m honest, though, I liked Galbraith just a bit better than late Rowling. (The first four Harry Potter books still reign supreme.) While both writers are funny, suspenseful, and sharp about race and class, he seems under less pressure to take himself and his story seriously. I wonder why.