Some time in the dim and distant past, I remember asking why it was that there was no current series of British crime fiction that paralleled the American PI novels. People were quick to point out to me that I had forgotten Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobb’s books, but they weren’t exactly what I had in mind. While they are being written now, they are not set in the present. What I was looking for was something akin to Sue Grafton or Sara Paretsky’s novels featuring private investigators, or private detectives as we would call them, working in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Well now it looks as though we have at least the beginning of such a series in Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling and one of the interesting things about this book is that it very quickly becomes apparent why such stories are difficult to write. Galbraith’s detective, Cormoran Strike, late of the Army’s Special Investigation Branch, is asked by the brother of a childhood friend to look into the death of his sister, Lula, who, it has been ruled, has committed suicide. John Bristow feels that the police haven’t given enough consideration to CCTV footage that shows two men running away from the area where the death occurred and wants to instigate a new investigation.
And there’s your problem. In this technological age how do private detectives get access to the kinds of evidence that a police enquiry can call on? How do they get to see the CCTV? Who is going to show them the forensic results from the detailed searches done by SOCO teams? Which pathologist is going to hand them a copy of their findings? Writing a modern day PI novel isn’t going to be as straightforward as I might have thought it to be.
In this instance Galbraith gets round it by having Strike offer the police a like-for-like exchange of inside knowledge, helping them to bring down a criminal on whom the detective has inside information. (That’s not a spoiler, by the way. It has nothing to do with this story other than to oil the wheels of this particular narrative dilemma.) It works here, but isn’t a ploy Galbraith can use again and again. If this is to become a series then he is going to have to find other ways of getting round this particular problem.
Ah, yes, Galbraith. When I started this book, that is who I thought I was reading and I’ve decided that for the purposes of this review, at least, I am going to go on assuming that I know nothing of last weekend’s hoo-ha and simply talk about the book on its merits. And it’s most distinctive merits are its main characters. Strike and Robin Ellacott, the young woman who is sent to act as his temp for a week, are completely believable. I really liked Robin, a young woman who places intellectual stimulation above the better wages she might earn elsewhere and who shows a level of initiative that puts most of the men around her in the shade. But Strike is the star of the piece. He’s a good man, I would trust him with my life, but there are times, particularly early mornings, when I would definitely not want to know him. For reasons that are far too complicated to go into here, he is sleeping in his office and there are some mornings when I swear I could smell him! I’ve come away from this book convinced I know these people and absolutely certain that I want to develop the acquaintance further.
And the plot is all right. There isn’t a hole in it as far as I can see, but I was very aware of the building blocks that were being used to construct it. Time after time, I found myself saying “Ah, hang on to that bit, because it is bound to be important”. A really well written plot will disguise at least some of those blocks rather more carefully. As everything fell into place at the end, I had all the pieces I needed to hand. Nothing had me gasping with amazement and chastising myself for having missed a vital clue. I was contented with the outcome but there wasn’t a ‘Whoa’ factor of any sort. But, perhaps this will come with practice and after all, I suspect that what primarily draws us back to a crime series is the relationship we have forged with the main characters. We are going to want to know more about Cormoran and Robin.
So, all in all, I think, a successful debut. Of course it and any that follow will have a market whatever happens, but I had already put Galbraith on my list of ‘authors to be followed’ before I read last Sunday’s papers and having finished the book, I still think he deserves to be there whoever he really turned out to be.