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Updated: August 31, 2013 16:42 IST

Strike one and win

ZARA KHAN
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The Cuckoo’s Calling; Robert Galbraith, Hachette, Rs.599.
Special Arrangement The Cuckoo’s Calling; Robert Galbraith, Hachette, Rs.599.

A whodunit that reels the reader in page by page.

By now, it is common knowledge that Robert Galbraith is really the nom de plume of J.K. Rowling. But even if that fact hadn’t been bandied about, it would’ve hardly taken away from the brilliance of The Cuckoo’s Calling.

The book begins with the description of a crime scene where a supermodel has fallen to her death. An almost-unanimous verdict of suicide is reached and the case receives steadily dwindling attention for a few months until her brother, who believes his sister has been murdered, brings it to the attention of our down-on-his-luck anti-hero, Cormoran Strike.

Strike, who initially wants only to placate him and undo some of his own financial ruin, is drawn slowly into the tangled and seemingly disconnected series of events that led up to her apparent suicide. We are drawn into the story along with him.

The book is not a racy thriller; rather it reels you in page by page. Rowling is a master at setting the scene, making you see what she wants you to see, and scattering vague clues here and there.

Strike and Robin, who starts out as his temporary P.A. and ends up his sidekick, are appealing characters. Rowling has done a good job with Strike especially, by not giving him a larger-than-life persona who solves the case in a blaze of glory, and gets the pretty girl in the end. He remains on the sidelines, mostly as a dispassionate observer, concerned about the state of his own life, his prosthetic foot, his dwindling finances, and his ex-fiancée.

Robin, on the other hand, seems pretty well settled in life initially — a loving fiancé, job opportunities on the horizon, and a shiny, if slightly naïve, enthusiasm for the P.I. business. Although, one can’t help but wish that she would ditch her stick-in-the-mud man and make a go of it with Strike. But the fact that Rowling did not so much as venture into that territory makes the story more appealing.

Rowling captures the essence of working class London, blending it with celebrity culture and upper class snobbery, and creating a heady cocktail of ever-so-slightly morbid intrigue. There are even references to the infamous phone hacking for the smallest crumb of scandal.

Most of the time it is difficult to see Rowling in this work. The language is undeniably adult — with liberal and explicit usage of invectives — as is the stage; and yet there is a sense of déjà vu — sometimes in the rough accent used by a character, sometimes in the picturesque detailing of a scene, sometimes in the unusual surnames of the characters, but most often in the profound meaning apparent in the most innocuous of sentences.

Rowling has created an intriguing and fascinating detective, with a loyal and slightly enamoured sidekick but the stolid sleuth’s derisive attitude towards the histrionics of the privileged; the minor showing off every now and then to his assistant and the final dénouement are reminiscent of Christie. And yet, Rowling retains her individuality and stamps her characters with their own identities. If ever someone deserved to succeed the Queen of Crime to her throne, well, the heir apparent is finally here.

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