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Onyx reviews: The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith 

Cormoran Strike, 35, a former military policeman, lost the lower half of one leg to a land mine while in Afghanistan. He now works as a private detective in London, though his client list is short because of the poor economy. His long-term tempestuous relationship with a wealthy aristocrat has just ended for good, so he's effectively homeless, living on an army cot in the back room of his office, which he can just barely afford thanks to loans that are past due. He's receiving death threats from an irate former client. He can't afford the temp who shows up at his door one Monday morning, but he hasn't the heart to send her away, so he takes her on for a week.

If Strike is down on his luck, the opposite is true for the temp, Robin Ellacott, whose boyfriend just proposed to her before the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Square. Now she's getting to work at her dream job—she's always dreamt of being a detective.

With new business at a premium, when John Bristow offers to pay Strike handsomely to investigate his sister's death, which the police ruled a suicide, he can't turn the commission down. As it turns out, Strike knew his client's brother, Charlie. The dead woman is Lula Landry, who was adopted by the Bristows after Charlie's death in an accident when he was nine. Lula became a supermodel with a highly public life that included a volatile relationship with a bad-boy drug-addicted musician. A famous rapper wrote song lyrics about her. She was on the verge of signing a lucrative contract at the time of her death, so it's not surprising that some people doubt she killed herself. 

Robin quickly demonstrates her usefulness as a sidekick, organizing the chaotic office, digging up information on her own initiative and covering for Strike's lack of creature comforts in his office during Barstow's initial visit. She is the perfect Girl Friday, attentive and resourceful, perpetually bright and cheery. She knows more than she needs to about Strike's situation (she sees the cot in his office), but she and her temporary boss never discuss the matter. At the behest of her fiancÚ, she is interviewing for permanent positions that will bring in a higher wage than Strike can afford, but as the days remaining on her contract dwindle, she becomes increasingly distraught at the thought of leaving such an interesting job.

The case takes Strike into the lofty world of high fashion and music. If his life had gone differently, he might have been more comfortable in this realm. He is the son of Jonny Rokeby, a rock star in the Mick Jagger vein, and one of his groupies, but he only met the man once or twice, a fact that disappoints most of the people he encounters during the investigation, who know Rokeby better than Strike does.

The murder mystery—for it doesn't take Strike long to decide that Lula did not leap from her penthouse balcony late one snowy evening—is well constructed. There are clues to be found by a persistent and observant gumshoe. People lie and recant, stories shift with time, and it takes a clever team to assemble all the parts. Strike occasionally reserves some of his deductions from Robin (and, therefore, from readers) to keep the whodunit going, which seems to be fair game in crime novels. In addition to the imminent threat of losing his Watson to some other employer, there is also the risk that other people in Lula's circle may be killed if Strike digs too deep.

There's no shortage of suspects. If Lula's murder was a crime of passion, then it was done by someone savvy enough to cover up in the aftermath. She had a public fight with her boyfriend the night she died. She recently reconnected with her avaricious birth mother and had been trying to identify her father. She struggled with a drug addiction and made an unlikely friend while in rehab. She was a popular target for the paparazzi, and her cell phone had been hacked, so the security apartment in which she lived was supposed to be a safe haven, away from prying eyes and ears. The book's subtext is about the price people pay for celebrity, and the loss of privacy that goes with fame. Strike gets to experience this first-hand when he's photographed leaving a night club with one of Lula's former colleagues.

The author knows whereof he she speaks. By now most people know that the only thing on the "about the author" page of The Cuckoo's Calling is the statement that "Robert Galbraith" is a pseudonym. The author is not, in fact, a former member of the Royal Military Police but rather J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. The book is a major shift from the novels that made her rich and famous, and also an improvement upon the pessimistic and bleak The Casual Vacancy.

While writing under a pseudonym can be liberating, it also exposes the difficulties writers have in breaking into publishing. One editor admits to having rejected The Cuckoo's Calling because it was too quiet. While obviously well written and cleverly plotted, it doesn't have anything that makes it stand out in the genre. The characterization is its strong point: both Strike and Robin are appealing and engaging, and Rowling resists the temptation to throw them into each other's arms, even though there is a spark of attraction and fondness between them. The whodunit will probably fool most readers, but it doesn't rise to the level of, say, Gone Girl in terms of innovation and surprise.

Before the pseudonym was exposed, the book was well reviewed, but had sold poorly. It had garnered a blurb from Val McDermid and the publisher sent out review copies, but few people had heard of it. Now, of course, it's a runaway hit. Does it deserve to take #1 on the bestseller lists? Probably not, but at the very least it guarantees that there will be more novels featuring Strike and Robin in the future, which is a good thing. Readers can only hope that Rowling will find enough in these characters to spend at least as long in the crime genre as she did in fantasy. 


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