The Cuckoo’s Calling | Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

There is something intensely disquieting about beginning a book with a sticker on its cover saying: “J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith." The effect of this tiny bubble of information on seasoned readers of crime fiction is akin to what a child must feel when told about the real identity of Santa Claus.

But the clarification of the true authorship of The Cuckoo’s Calling was unavoidable after a minor lapse on Twitter managed to blow Rowling’s cover. In an ideal world, such revelations ought to have been saved for historians hunting for trivia among Rowling’s papers many decades from now—and striking gold in their quest. But the real world, driven by an all-invasive media and publicity machinery, had other plans.

More troubling, though entirely unsurprising, is the way the knowledge of the identity of the writer has become key to the success of the book. Would anyone have cared much for the book had this secret not become public? As far as sales figures are concerned, copies were not exactly flying off the shelves before Rowling came into the picture. But The Cuckoo’s Calling was not doing poorly either, especially for an allegedly “first-time" author.

The Cuckoo’s Calling: Hachette India, 449 pages, Rs 599
The Cuckoo’s Calling: Hachette India, 449 pages, Rs 599

In the best tradition of British crime writing, The Cuckoo’s Calling manages to create psychologically complex and convincing characters. PI Strike has a pretty (female) sidekick called Robin (Rowling allows Strike the Batman joke before readers can begin sniggering). At the heart of the story is the alleged murder of a supermodel, around which various issues coalesce. From the rapacious paparazzi to murky problems of adoption to conflicts of race and class, Rowling manages to weave into her plot themes that are resonantly topical in contemporary Britain. With her gradual and circuitously unfolding plot, she seems closer to P.D. James than Agatha Christie, the kind of crime writer whose priority is depth, not pace, though one, in her best British manner, would never want to exhaust her readers emotionally. In the end, we are left with the satisfying aftertaste of freshly-baked scones and home-made jam, satiated and willing to move on to something more challenging.

While paying attention to the craft of the plot, Rowling does not neglect its execution. The treatment is charmingly cinematic, especially the way she evokes vignettes of daily life in contemporary London, and occasionally, a gruesome episode, such as the discovery of a body floating in the Thames, may bring to mind scenes from cult classics like Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy. The social observations are astute—laced with just the right degree of cynicism, sarcasm and empathy. The keen attention to clothes, accessories and the accoutrements of the fashion industry, the biting and often bitchy comments on the lives of the rich and wasted, are hugely entertaining—and would have been remarkable for a first-time author, had the reader not been disabused of the identity of “Robert Galbraith".

Some of Rowling’s abiding concerns, especially with unsavoury media intrusion into the private lives of celebrities, derive from her personal experiences. One of her chief public battles, since the immense popularity of the Harry Potter series, has been with the media, which has been prying into her private life in every possible way. In 2011 in the Leveson Inquiry, into the workings of the British press following the News International phone hacking scandal, Rowling testified, telling the panel how she had been appalled by notes from journalists in her five-year-old daughter’s schoolbag. Two years on, not much seems to have changed.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is out in book stores in India this week.

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