I still remember the first time I heard of the boy wizard Harry Potter. I was staying the night at a friend’s house, camped out on a mattress laid on the floor of his room when his father came in to begin their nightly ritual. He read one chapter of a book to his sons each night, and on that night to me as well. I heard Harry Potter get sorted into Griffindor. I heard of friendly ghosts and schools of magic and feasts that appeared before your eyes. I was, if you’ll pardon the expression, enchanted. The remainder of my childhood was measured by milestones of Harry Potter book releases. From that first moment of magic I experienced through the chance encounter of kibitzing a loving father’s devotion to his sons, I was enraptured. When I finished The Cuckoo’s Calling, I experienced a similar sensation.
J. K. Rowling, under the nom de plume Robert Galbraith, has proven to me that she has far from reached her peak. The first novel of her Cormoran Strike mystery series reminds me why I fell in love with the world of Harry Potter.
Rowling has an incredible talent for understanding her characters and in describing their essence succinctly through their introduction. A single scene or moment gives you a clear impression of each player in the story of supermodel Lula Landry’s death in a way that recalls Jane Austen’s biting caricatures in Pride and Prejudice. The reader is never left trying to remember who a particular character is or how they fit into the plot; each is colorfully distinct and memorable from the moment they are introduced, a feat that is only made more impressive when considering how many British aristocrats feature in the novel, a group conceptually as colorful and diverse as a legion of bespoke-suited stormtroopers.
This skill of Rowling’s pairs beautifully with her signature writing style, full of imaginative imagery and inventive turn of phrase. I was often reminded of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged by the descriptions that breathed life into Rowling’s latest literary London, though thankfully her cast speaks less repititiously than John Galt’s compatriots. Even the scenes I most dread in mystery novels, those interviews filled with lines of dialogue hiding a single clue, become fascinating character studies in Rowling’s hands.
By bringing such vivid writing to her tale, Rowling makes each chapter an adventure worth reading, rather than the dull slog I have come to expect in the modern mystery. Instead of reading the literary equivalent of an EA game, filled to bursting with extraneous nonsense and irrelevant side quests aimed at stretching a story beyond any remaining interest, I was treated to a tale as tightly woven as Ico’s mechanics. Not a single detail ended up unimportant, even the backstories of several characters which turned from interesting character development to vital clues in the final confrontation.
And oh, that final confrontation. Instead of the staple gathering of all suspects for a dramatic reveal, Rowling opts for a much more atmospheric ending. I was strongly reminded of the climaxes of several Harry Potter books, with the hero quietly facing down a threat, tension mounting as the villain is unmasked, discovered like a viper waiting to strike.
All this is capped by a signature Rowling ending. Once the climax has passed, the denouement succinctly ties all loose ends in a fashion antithetical to the “too many endings” of Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King. A single scene provides the calm sigh of relief that marks the closure of a truly great book. Rowling manages to provide a rewarding finish while looking ahead to the next adventure as well as she always has, mixing satisfaction with a hint of anticipation.
Overall, Rowling is in top form, reminding us of her unique skill. Her ability to generate names both colorful and apt (Cormoran Strike as the foremost example), her vivified characters that spring off the page, and her sense of pacing that practically turns its own pages are as powerful now as when Harry Potter strode the corridors of Hogwarts. The only notable change is the elegant erudition she wears lightly, leaving unassuming quotes from Rome’s greatest poets and writers at the head of each section of the book. The text itself is dotted with similarly impressive references, leaving me with the impression that the genius of Harry Potter was tempered toward its young audience. I am left with a feeling that I knew only a small part of Rowling’s literary skill, and that The Cuckoo’s Calling has opened an irresistibly enticing door into her full potential.
J. K. Rowling, via Robert Galbraith, has enchanted me once more without using a single spell, hidden pub, or Quidditch match. She has forever stamped my youth with the greatest children’s series and greatest fantasy epic of our generation (sorry, George; I can’t even put you in the running until you finish the last two books), and now I find myself poised on the precipice of another series that may similarly stamp my adulthood. I highly encourage anyone and everyone to read The Cuckoo’s Calling, and I anxiously look forward to starting the next installment, The Silkworm.