Pen names are funny things aren’t they? It’s pretty impossible for the real author behind them to stay hidden for long. Either the books become so successful that the lack of personal appearances becomes telling, or someone in the know leaks the story just because they can. Sometimes, authors have pen names so they can publish books outside their own genre with impunity (Barbara Vine and Richard Bachman spring to mind here) and it’s no secret who the real author behind it is. It is a proper shame that Galbraith’s true identity as J.K. Rowling was leaked by some smug moron on social media so very quickly, as it would have been fascinating to see if The Cuckoo’s Calling could have become a bestseller in its own right. It certainly had the reviews to make it so, and not just from critics, but from other authors too, none of whom were aware Galbraith was a pseudonym.
None of that hoopla can take away from this that it’s a cracking read with a magnificent antihero creation at its centre. Improbable name aside, Cormoran Strike is brilliant. After losing a leg to a landmine in Afghanistan, he has been working as a private investigator ever since. When we meet him, he is at a particularly low ebb. Sleeping in his office after breaking up with his girlfriend, down to one client and fast heading towards bankruptcy, Strike is not so much about to throw in the towel, but accept the inevitability of it being thrown in whether he likes it or not. Then, John Bristow comes to see him. His adopted sister, the supermodel Lula Landry, committed suicide by jumping off her penthouse balcony a few months ago, but Bristow thinks someone killed her and wants Strike to find out who. Strike thinks he’s on a hiding to nothing, but Bristow tells him money is no object, so Strike agrees to look into it. And finds that Bristow may have a point.
Say what you like about Rowling, she’s a damn good story teller. And she knows how to create three dimensional characters too. Cuckoo’s Calling is stuffed to the gills with people who, in less talented hands, would undoubtedly be shrieking caricatures. Rowling isn’t afraid to flesh them out, make us believe in and care about them. And the mystery of who killed Lula and why is sufficiently twisted to justify the book’s length (over 500 pages in paperback). But when Strike finally gets to the bottom of it and lays it all out for the reader, it is breathtaking in its audacious simplicity. It takes a writer of considerable daring to pull off what she does with this denouement, and while it may require a couple of forgiving moments with some of the leaps in logic, I was still absolutely engrossed and impressed.
Pleasingly, Rowling hasn’t allowed her cover being blown to give up on her alter ego or her antihero. A second Strike novel is coming out any moment now. I can’t wait to read it and I hope there are many more to come.