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On April 30, 2013, Mullhouland books published the debut detective novel of Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo's Calling. It got very nice reviews, including a starred one from Publishers' Weekly and words of high praise from other authors of the genre. But it only sold about 500 of 1500 copies shipped in two and a half months. And while those are not terrible sales for a new author, for someone whose earlier work had made her one of the world's richest writers, they were microscopic.

J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter
 and the Sorcerer's Stone at the Easter
 Egg Roll at White House, 2010
According to the New York Times, an anonymous tweet sent to a reporter at the Sunday Times newspaper of London sent the arts editor, Richard Brooks, on an investigative journey. After the initial tip, the tweeter deleted his Twitter account leaving Brooks to dig around the internet on his own. He found that the agent, publisher and editor for Cuckoo's Calling were the same as those for Casual Vacancy, the first adult novel written by JK Rowling. He found it strange that a newcomer would warrant such high level attention.
He then started reading the book. “I said, ‘Nobody who was in the Army and now works in civilian security could write a book as good as this,’ ” he said. Next, he sent copies of “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” “The Casual Vacancy” and the last Harry Potter novel, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” to a pair of computer linguistic experts, who found significant similarities among them.
He finally approached a Rowling spokesperson with the question of authorship and Rowling "decided to 'fess up."

Reuters reproted that the tweet resulted from a leak at Rowling's London law firm, Russells whose apology, although offered "unreservedly," didn't seem to do much to assuage Rowling's anger.

"A tiny number of people knew my pseudonym and it has not been pleasant to wonder for days how a woman whom I had never heard of prior to Sunday night could have found out something that many of my oldest friends did not know," she said.

"To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. I had assumed that I could expect total confidentiality from Russells, a reputable professional firm, and I feel very angry that my trust turned out to be misplaced."

According to The Guardian, Rowling did not submit the work to any publishers other than her own. It also pointed out how difficult it is, in spite of decent reviews, for a new author to get the attention necessary for decent sales.

To me, as a reader, that is the disturbing fact of the entire story. This book, which is now at the top of the Amazon best seller list and would probably be number one on the NYT list if hardback copies were available, languished unsold as a book by an unknown author. If a publisher isn't working hard to sell the work of a new author, what is the point of a publisher? Why shouldn't an author self-publish?

JK Rowling's publisher is Little, Brown & Company, part of the Hatchette Group, one of the big five publishing giants.

So that is the background. Below the fold is the book.

The Cuckoo's Calling
By John Galbraith/JK Rowling
Little, Brown & Co/Mulholland Books/Hatchette Group
Hardback list price $26.00 ($16.90 at Amazon)
Kindle version $9.99
Audible digital audio: $12.99
April 30, 2013
464 pages

The prologue of The Cuckoo's Calling opens on the night of the apparent suicide of super model Lula Landry, and the media circus that the suicide creates as the street below her apartment fills with satellite trucks, journalists, photographers and the paparazzi.

The story forced news of politics, wars and disasters aside, and every version of it sparkled with pictures of the dead woman’s flawless face, her lithe and sculpted body. Within hours, the few known facts had spread like a virus to millions: the public row with the famous boyfriend, the journey home alone, the overheard screaming and the final, fatal fall…

[snip]

And then, at last, the frenzy wore itself into staleness, and even the journalists had nothing left to say, but that too much had been said already.

Three months later, Cormoran Strike, having been thrown out of the digs he shared with his now ex-girlfriend, wakens in his office and literally runs into his new temporary secretary, Robin Ellacott. Looking a bit like a "grizzly bear" Strike is a big, burly man who lost half of his leg in Afghanistan and is finding life as a private detective in London to be an easy route to poverty. Newly engaged, Robyn, a romantic at heart, is working for a temp agency until she can find permanent employment in her new home of London.

Lula Landry's brother, John Bristow, appears in Strike's office that morning and offers double the standard fee if Strike will investigate his sister's suicide. It is Bristow's belief that Landry did not jump, but was pushed off of her balcony, perhaps by the unidentified man that CCTV captured fleeing the scene.

With that, the reader in plunged into the world of the wealthy celebrities of London. It is a world found at the intersection of high-end designer shops, parties, drugs and booze with entertainers, athletes, models and designers, all with sycophants and hangers-on. And the ever present paparazzi.

JK Rowling knows how to tell a story, and as always, her characters are so rich that we think of them as living people. Robin, as Strike's temp, does't just fetch coffee for Bristow that first morning, but since Strike's office has none, borrows the coffee, biscuits, cups and tray from another tenant in the building. She quickly became my favorite character, often in the background, but always displaying an intelligent, assertive nature and finding creative solutions.

Strike himself is down on his luck, but not ready to give up, though seriously considering it. He is the illegitimate son of a famous rock star and his avid groupie girlfriend. And everyone knows it. So as he pokes around the world of celebrity, he does so as an outsider with a famous father. A famous father that he barely knows.

Most modern day mysteries set in a city like London tend to be police procedurals, relying on pathology labs and DNA evidence, and while Strike does have a backdoor access to the police department, this mystery relies more heavily upon old fashioned sleuthing. Strike works his way through interviews with a long list of friends, acquaintances, neighbors and family members. So there is not a lot of action but there is a lot of conversation. He ponders little bits of evidence and adds them all up to reach his own conclusion which is revealed at the very end. As a result, it felt just a little old-fashioned which may have been the author's intent.

It is clear that JK Rowling has studied the genre and applies what she has learned with skill. And while she does lack the imaginative plotting and the eloquence of a Tana French, The Cuckoo's Calling is a well written debut novel in this genre.

Personally I was a little disappointed. Perhaps because in the Harry Potter series, Rowling created an entire universe and invited us in to have a look around. This novel never did completely draw me in but that may have been because the world she created was one I found discordant and unappealing. I don't follow celebrity gossip and have long since stopped shopping designer labels, so some of her references went over my head. I did appreciate her disdain for the paparazzi and media hoopla that accompanies fame. She left me thinking that she wrote about that from a deep well of personal experience.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Jul 22, 2013 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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