I’ve mentioned before that I wasn’t fond of the Harry Potter books. But I read all seven of them, if only so I could talk to my nieces and improve my crossword puzzle performance.
Despite my indifference toward the Harry Potter books, when all the hoopla arose around J.K. Rowling hiding her identity to publish an adult crime novel, I decided to read it. I also was about to publish a novel under a pseudonym, and I was curious why a famous author would follow this path also. And her first book under the name Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling, received good reviews.
I’ve now read both books that Rowling has published to date under the Galbraith pseudonym. Both The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm were better than the adult novel that Rowling published under her own name, A Casual Vacancy, though that wasn’t a bad book.
(NOTE: In this review, I’ll call the author Galbraith, unless I’m referring to the Harry Potter books.)
I thought The Cuckoo’s Calling was a wonderful, gritty detective story. Like all the best noir protagonists, Cormoran Strike is a tortured soul with an unfortunate former love interest. What makes him unique is that he is a disabled veteran, still suffering from a war injury in Afghanistan that left him without part of his leg. He was forced to leave behind his successful career in the British military police to become a private investigator. Cormoran is also the illegitimate son of a famous rock star.
In The Cuckoo’s Calling, Galbraith has Cormoran investigating the death of a supermodel, someone who lived in the world of the rich and famous that his father inhabits.
Rowling’s many years of writing the Harry Potter books shows in the fast-paced plot and well-developed characters in The Cuckoo’s Calling. If it takes a million words before a writer knows what he or she is doing, then Rowling has paid her dues, and kudos to her for moving out of the youth fantasy genre into hard-boiled detective fiction. She is good at it.
SPOILER ALERTS—THE REST OF THIS POST DISCUSSES THE PLOT AND THEMES IN BOTH THE CUCKOO’S CALLING AND THE SILKWORM.
One of the things that I liked best about The Cuckoo’s Calling was the relationship between Cormoran Strike and his gal Friday, Robin Ellacott, a young PI wannabe, who is engaged to a guy who wants her to be a Human Resources clerk. The reader can tell instinctively that Cormoran and Robin would be a better match, if only he can get over his ex-longtime-girlfriend, and she could drop the dorky fiancé.
Obviously, Cormoran and Robin get the bad guy. But before they do, readers wend their way through a maze of suspects and clues that equals the best of modern crime writers. The ability to develop intricate plots that sustained Rowling through seven Harry Potter books shows in her Cormoran Strike novels. She doesn’t have the edginess of Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), but Rowling writes a very competent noir novel in a modern setting. Her plotting and the relationship between Cormoran and Robin take The Cuckoo’s Calling to near the top of my list. I think her mysteries are comparable to the novels of Tana French and P.D. James, both of whom I like very much.
I really cared about what happened to Cormoran and Robin, so I again jumped to get The Silkworm, the second novel published under the Robert Galbraith pseudonym. I highly recommend The Silkworm as well The Cuckoo’s Calling. They can be read in either order, though it is always nice to start with the first book in a series.
In some ways I enjoyed the second book more than the first. It is set in the world of authors and publishers—a world I know a little better than the world of super-models. And the relationship between Cormoran and Robin shifts a little, as both recognize problems with their current and past loves, though they also recognize the perils of a workplace romance.
The Silkworm is far gorier than the first book, as it features a horrific murder method involving disembowelment and acid. I must say that as soon as I realized that missing entrails were a component of the mystery, I developed a strong suspicion about the murderer, which proved to be correct, though I had no idea of the character’s motivation.
The second novel was also grittier than the first. The savagery of the murder and the shadiness and sexual deviance of the many suspects all made The Silkworm darker and more violent than The Cuckoo’s Calling.
My only complaint about the plotting in The Silkworm was that once Cormoran figures out whodunit, the readers have to wait a couple of chapters before he tells them. Cormoran sets up an event to provoke the murderer into action, but the readers don’t know who or what he’s trying to do. All writers manipulate their readers, but this obvious manipulation felt clumsy and annoying to me.
In addition to delivering a really good murder mystery, Galbraith also provides commentary on English social classes, wealth, and gender inequality. The themes of The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm feel real, even if some of the bad guys are over-the-top evil.
I am definitely looking forward to Book Three about Cormoran and Robin. I like these characters far more than Harry Potter and his gang, but then, I read Harry Potter as an adult.
What mystery or thriller series do you eagerly seek out?