I’m a little late to the game but finally got around to reading The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first installment of J.K. Rowling’s detective mystery series published under her pseudonym, Robert Galbraith. The novel follows detective Cormoran Strike and his temp secretary Robin Ellacott as they investigate the suspicious suicide of supermodel Lula Landry. One of the major themes of the book is exploring different experiences of being black in England, engaging in race relations with a nuance often lacking in the Harry Potter universe. Rowling also steps up her disability representation by featuring a protagonist with a prosthetic leg but at the same time seems to make backward progress in her portrayal of women.
In the novel, private investigator Cormoran Strike is hired by the dead girl’s brother to look into her suspicious suicide. Security footage from the night she died shows a black man running from the scene a few streets away. John Bristow is convinced that his sister didn’t kill herself, but rather was murdered and that this man was involved. Strike muses on Bristow’s fixation on the runner, wondering if it can be merely chalked up to “a secret fear of that urban bogeyman, the criminal black male,” or if there is more to it. Here, Strike as narrator acknowledges the racial bias rampant in both England and America that links the notion of black men with criminality. Another character who faces prejudice for her skin color is Rochelle, Lula’s homeless friend who is looked down on by the upper crust that makes up most of Lula’s friends and family. The combination of her blackness and her homelessness means that John and other characters can’t be bothered to remember her name properly and the police do not deem her worthy of investigation, even when her circumstances seem suspiciously linked to the case. Lula herself struggled with her ancestry as a half-black girl adopted into a white family, frequently citing that as the cause of some of her insecurities. She became determined to connect to her roots, especially when her birth mother revealed that her father was a foreign student from Africa. Her mixed heritage gives Lula just the right touch of exoticism to find success as a beauty icon, without being “too black” and suffering the same prejudices as the runner and Rochelle. Between these three characters and several others (such as American rapper Deeby Mac and Caribbean-accented security man Derrick Wilson), Rowling portrays a range of black experiences and contrasts them with each other and with the experiences of the white characters.
Rowling’s choice to commit so heavily to engaging with race in The Cuckoo’s Calling may come as a surprise to those who found her previous track record lackluster. While tolerance and prejudice are major overarching themes in the Harry Potter world, specific examples of diversity often fall prey to tokenism and stereotype. In a highly successful slam poem Rachel Rostad criticizes Rowling for her shallow portrayal of the one major East Asian character among Harry’s classmates: Cho Chang. While I can name several students of color in Gryffindor alone (Dean Thomas, Parvati Patel, Angelina Johnson, Lee Jordan), their roles in the story are minimal, their personalities flat. They seem to exist merely to add color to the crowd. Harry’s core friend group is all white (or at least generally perceived as white until Hermione was cast as a black woman in the play The Cursed Child). Rowling revealed Dumbledore to be gay although his sexuality is never confirmed in canon, thus closeting him and hardly counting towards LGBTQ representation. Perhaps Rowling’s biggest faux pas, however, was her appropriation of Native American myths into the origin story of the North American equivalent of Hogwarts, while simultaneously propagating a colonial mindset where European wizards had to come in and civilize the heretofore unorganized Native magical community that had no central governance or schooling. I was glad to see a more sensitive approach to writing about communities different than her own in her adult work and wish that it would extend to her more magical projects as well.
Another group that lacks representation at Hogwarts finds it in The Cuckoo’s Calling: people with disabilities. Protagonist Cormoran Strike is an amputee, having lost part of one leg below the knee while serving in Afghanistan. He wears a prosthetic leg and throughout the story, while his disability sometimes inconveniences or pains him, it never prevents him from achieving his goals. Mental illness, specifically depression, also plays a large role in the book. Again, while this issue was addressed at the abstract level in Harry Potter through the creation of dementors, we are made to deal with it on a more literal level in Cuckoo’s Calling. Lula Landry was managing her depression well by the time she died, taking her anti-depressants as prescribed and generally excited about life. Yet all the police can see is her diagnosis and thus are quick to label her death a suicide.
Lastly, I can hardly look at a book now without analyzing its treatment of women so let’s talk about that. I was relieved to see that gruff older Cormoran Strike does not hook up with his sexy, young, recently-engaged secretary Robin. Robin is a complex character who shows a level of intelligence and initiative that even Cormoran has to admire. In fact, I think she would have made a better focus for the story. (Why does Rowling so often write about male heroes? Even her pseudonym is male.) While Strike is not conventionally handsome (his wiry black hair earned him the childhood nickname pube-head) and his build and body hair make him look more like an intimidating bear than dashing Don Juan, this wouldn’t be fiction if he didn’t end up with some consolation prize way out of his league. Sure enough, mid-way through his investigation he sleeps with one of Lula’s supermodel friends, in what seems to be merely a digression to affirm his supreme masculinity. The message is loud and clear: Good guys always get the hot girls. Meanwhile, plain girls have no such luck. John Bristow’s secretary Alison falls prey to her desire to be desired, becoming a pawn in a game of corporate and family politics. I would have expected better from the writer who brought us the likes of Hermione Granger and Minerva McGonagall.
Overall, the book was an enjoyable read and gave me a lot to think about. If it shows anything, it is that J.K. Rowling is merely human, with strengths and flaws as writer, as an activist, and as an empathetic human being. She has grown in some ways since her Harry Potter days and still has much room for improvement in others. I look forward to seeing how the rest of the Cormoran Strike series progresses and in what new directions Rowling will stretch herself as a writer.