“The dead could only speak through the mouths of those left behind, and through the signs they left scattered behind them.”
Every detective series has to have a memorable detective at its core. To fill this requirement, a writer can either go quirky (like Precious Ramotswe or Stephanie Plum) or gritty (like Harry Bosch, Kinsey Milhone, or Sam Spade). Cormoran Strike is decidedly gritty, and when we first meet him he’s in the midst of a very bad time. His turbulent relationship has come to an end and he’s sleeping in his office. He’s on the verge of losing that office because business has been tough, and even though Strike could rely on military benefits from the tour in Afghanistan that left him missing one leg, he’s determined to make it on his own. A temp agency has just sent him an exceedingly capable assistant named Robin, but he can’t afford to pay her and may lose her.
Right on cue, the client of Strike’s dreams walks through the door. This client’s long-deceased brother was an old school chum of Strike’s, so he sought him out to help him investigate the recent death of his sister–a supermodel and paparazzi-magnet named Lula who plunged to her death in an apparent suicide several months earlier. Strike seems to be the man for the job because of his unique connection to the family, but he proves to be even more effective because of his equally unique relationship with celebrity. You see, Strike is the bastard son of a famous rock musician and his mother was a famous groupie. Strike’s odd status in the celebrity realm get him in with Lula’s famous friends and hangers-on even as his bitterness with the whole scene will help him see things for what they really are.
The central mystery is presented as the old ‘locked room’ scenario: as far as anyone can tell, Lula was alone in her apartment and no one could have entered the building. gotten to the third floor, pushed her out the window, and escaped back down to the lobby without being seen by security or the other tenants, who were hysterical over Lula’s swan dive. The three other people in the building are all accounted for thanks to their own accounts of what happened, but one of them claims to have heard Lula screaming at someone before the fall–which should be impossible because of all the soundproof barriers between them at the time. It’s up to Strike to penetrate the mystery and find out what went on in that building.
The answer is not that surprising but the mystery is sufficiently complicated that you still get caught up in how it all unravels. And if it doesn’t all unravel tidily, oh well. It’s still an enjoyable ride.
You could argue that this novel is overly long and unnecessarily slow, but it only seems that way because so much of the genre is overly concerned with fast pacing and constant cliffhangers. Cuckoo’s Calling grabs your attention the old-fashioned way and holds it without any tricks. It feels gratifying. The payoff: immense character depth that makes you want to hang in for the sequels. Cuckoo also eschews the ‘final twist’ formula that has, frankly, become tired. While that presents challenges of its own that don’t all work, it makes Cuckoo a refreshing read.
In the end, it’s not all wins for Cormoran Strike’s first outing, but things are solid enough and I’ll definitely be back for more. I do wonder, though, how things will change in the next book. Part of the charm in this one was that Cormoran was down on his luck and living out of his office. That can’t last forever. And so much of his rapport with Robin centered on the getting-to-know-you dynamic. Will she become more of a partner and less of an assistant as time goes by? The very fact that I’m wondering–and concerned about how these inevitable changes will impact the dynamics–shows you how promising this series is.
Related: The Silkworm