Galbraith, Robert [J. K. Rowling]. The Cuckoo’s Calling.

NY: Little, Brown, 2013.

It’s not uncommon for an established writer who is heavily identified with a particular genre to use a nom de plume when they want to break out and try something different. This was exactly J. K. Rowling’s situation, and she was more in danger than most of being trapped in the YA/fantasy literary ghetto by her own enormous success. In her second post-Harry-Potter novel, she takes on the noir private detective tradition and does it very well indeed.

Cormoran Strike is an ex-British Army military policeman — a talented investigator in the elite Special Investigations Branch, in fact — who lost his lower leg in Afghanistan and decided it was time to get out of the service. Now he’s struggling hard to establish a PI practice in central London while living with his wealthy off-again-on-again girlfriend of many years. Then they break up for what seems the final time, and he’s suddenly sleeping on a camp bed in his walk-up office and eating instant ramen for every meal.

Opportunity finally appears when the banker brother of recently deceased world-famous supermodel Lula Landry hires him to re-investigate her apparent suicide. He believes she was murdered and Strike agrees to take the case, delving into the girl’s last days in a notably competent, methodical, and highly focused manner. He begins working his way slowly through the list of her friends and relations, trying to sort out the definitive sequence of events, and various bits of information make him begin to believe his client’s claims. Strike is a very sympathetic character, even though he’s large and hairy and intimidating. You’re never in any doubt that he’s a Hero. (“Something to do with mining, I think,” Strike replies when asked about that unusual surname — a nice touch that most authors inventing an unlikely and hyper-dramatic character name wouldn’t bother with)

At the same time, we meet Robin, Strike’s secretary and assistant from the temp agency, a very pretty, very intelligent young woman in a committed relationship who is excited to discover just what her new boss does for a living. And Rowling does a good job of developing her in a supporting role without allowing her to become a cliché, as she insinuates herself into the case. Strike regards her engagement ring, and the fact that she’ll only be there a couple of weeks, to be useful boundaries to their relationship. He really doesn’t need complications like that in his life right now.

The other players, most of them suspects at one point or another, are equally well portrayed in multiple dimensions, from Lula’s obnoxious and bullying uncle to the security man at her apartment building. The plot itself is masterful, with the reader having to juggle what might be real clues or only red herrings — or even both — and you’re not likely to identify Whodunit until the last chapter. A sequel will be out shortly and I shall be waiting avidly for it. And I would be very surprised if this delightful book hasn’t already been snapped up by Hollywood.

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