Two weeks ago, the publishing world was rocked by the news that The Cuckoo’s Calling — supposedly a debut mystery novel written by one “Robert Galbraith” — was in fact the handiwork of Harry Potter’s creator, J. K. Rowling.
Why did Rowling choose to wrap herself in the invisibility cloak of a nom de plume? She may have been eager to avoid the unreasonably high expectations (and concomitantly dismal notices) that overshadowed last year’s The Casual Vacancy, her first stand-alone novel for an adult, non-fantasy-loving audience.
Initially, at least, her strategy for this new book succeeded: Industry bible Publishers Weekly anointed it “a stellar debut,” declaring that “Galbraith” had created not only “an elegant solution” to Cuckoo’s plot but also “a complex and compelling sleuth” in the character of Cormoran Strike.
Rowling was outed when a partner at her law firm confided the secret to his wife’s best friend, who then tweeted it to a columnist at The Sunday Times of London. Now that we know she’s the author, it makes sense to consider The Cuckoo’s Calling in the context of her previously published work.
With its cast of mostly urban characters, Cuckoo fleshes out Rowling’s quest to uncover stories of the disenfranchised — the unwanted, the forgotten, the overlooked, the maligned. Remember, Harry Potter was an orphan whose closest relatives, the Dursleys, stuffed him in a cupboard beneath the stairs. And two characters in The Casual Vacancy were children whose addict mother neglected them to the point of abuse.
By the same token, every player in Rowling’s newest novel has something to overcome. Strike, the failed private investigator at the center of the drama, is a disabled veteran of service in Afghanistan. Lula Landry, the beautiful young model whose death Strike is called to investigate, turns out to have been in search of a real family.
Rowling even includes that eternally marginalized sector of society, the aging. Landry’s adoptive mother, Lady Yvette Bristow, is suffering from cancer, recovering from major surgery — and manipulated by those closest to her as she mourns a daughter she may have parented badly. But when Strike finally questions her, Lady Bristow turns out to know far more about another death in the family than anyone imagined. Could that be the 47-year-old Rowling’s way of telling us to heed our elders?