First, let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, Robert Galbraith is actually one, Joanne Rowling, a.k.a. JK Rowling, author of the acclaimed Harry Potter series. And if you didn’t know that, don’t worry, I didn’t spoil anything for you. Galbraith’s true identity was revealed shortly after the mystery was published in 2013.
Now, I love mysteries. A lot. I get this from my mother who is the ultimate Sherlock Holmes fangirl, and I mean real Sherlock Holmes, like from the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, not a new convert to Benedict Cumberbatch and the BBC series. (Jeremy Brett forever.) Anyway, growing up with a mystery-obsessed mother, I learned to appreciate a well-crafted mystery, particularly those of Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Peters, and, later, Anne Perry. And I’ve realized that while I’ve read several books that are mystery adjacent in the last year, I haven’t read a real mystery in quite a while. I had given Michel The Cuckoo’s Calling last year for his birthday and decided to give it a shot.
My slight reluctance in reading Rowling’s detective yarn comes from her first foray into adult literature, The Casual Vacancy. I had a hard enough time getting into it that I eventually put it down, and my mother confirmed my initial opinions with her similar experience. To be fair, Rowling was trying to write her first novel since Harry Potter, a novel not at all connected to her world of wizards and magic, under intense scrutiny and pressure. What is this literary golden girl going to write next?? I think the novel suffered because of it, hence her decision to write a new series under a pseudonym. It makes sense, right? It gives her the opportunity to write whatever she wants with none of the pressure.
Well, it paid off. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike, a wonderful, old-school private eye with real talents and suddenly no place to live but his office, is hired to investigate the apparent suicide of it-girl model, Lula Landry, by her older brother who is convinced that her death was murder. He is joined by Robin, his temporary secretary who secretly dreams of being a detective in her own right, as he navigates the glitzy and artificial world of London fashion, music, and movies, all the while trying to figure out his own unexpected life situation.
This is not an action-packed thriller but a thoughtfully-crafted mystery in the style of the the old hard-boiled detective mysteries of the 1930’s and 40’s. Much of the drama comes from Strike patiently and deftly pulling the threads of the story out of his persons of interest and weaving them together into a single and more telling account. That’s not to say the novel feels dated. Strike is very much a man of today; he is a veteran who lost a leg in Afghanistan, utilizes the internet and technology as much as more traditional detecting methods, and is more than a little acquainted with the modern and peculiar concept of fame and its trappings in today’s London. Strike is an imperfect yet highly competent and effective protagonist, someone that we as readers can both relate to and admire for his skill.
Robin is a perfectly nice and enjoyable sidekick, and…that’s about it. She’s not nearly as compelling a character as Strike, and, quite frankly, her role is negligible. Additionally, her fiance Matthew, who could have been an interesting character, is a textbook snob caricature. He appears just enough to be irksome but not enough to be worth anything. However, Robin and, presumably, Matthew will be back in the second in the series (The Silkworm, published this past June), so hopefully now that Rowling has really established Strike, she will pay more attention to making Robin a valuable character. And Matthew, if he sticks around.
For me, this is not better than Harry Potter. However, Rowling is proving herself to be an inventive writer with a masterful facility for language. Several times, her prose sent me running to the dictionary, full of delight at learning new words. Additionally, though she maintains her own strong voice, she includes phrases that are clearly a playful homage to those Hollywood sleuth novels. And she creates a solid, well-plotted mystery, something she already has experience doing from writing the Harry Potter series. I’ve had several friends describe this with a variety of positive adjectives, but I think the most accurate is that it’s fun. You can feel Rowling’s joy at writing something that isn’t, initially at least, going to be intensely scrutinized. It is a fun, engrossing reading experience and a great option for when you are in the mood for a good, satisfying mystery.