Sophie Lee reviews

Actress, author and mother of three, Sophie Lee shares her fascination with crime writing, and this month unravels the mystery of The Cuckoo’s Calling, a captivating thriller penned by an author incognito

Crime novels are one of life’s principal comforts, ranking right up there along with cotton pyjamas and chicken soup. The detectives that populate their pages feel as close to me as buddies. In my TV-deprived childhood, Trixie Belden and the Famous Five rapidly became my BFFs. Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot replaced them in my teenage years; a guilty pleasure in the hours I should have been studying modern history. And in my twenties, Ruth Rendell’s super sleuths helped me while away those intervals on the green room couch between line runs and makeup tweaks. On one regional theatre tour in Western Australia, I demolished more P.D. James novels than I care to count. And by now, well into adulthood, detectives and I have a dynamic history of illicit hotel room trysts.

In the rapid bursts I spent in LA’s five star accommodation (promoting films) or squalid bedsits (dashing from screen test to audition), crime was my savior again and again. Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike were my imaginary pals as I raided the Four Seasons minibar in a fluffy robe, while Michael Connelly’s supremo veteran homicide detective, Harry Bosch, provided much needed mental relief from the machinations of Hollywood’s not-so-glamorous movie industry. Connelly made me feel connected to aspects of a city I only ever glimpsed as a jobbing actor – like the hole in the wall policemen’s bars that open for business early in the morning or the foreboding law enforcement offices downtown. In a single room in West Hollywood with zero floor space, detritus from doorknob to dusty window ledge and a solitary In-N-Out Burger for dinner, Connelly’s Harry Bosch became a reliable shoulder to lean on.

  1. Flash forward to a Sydney afternoon several years later during my more recent incarnation as mother and aspiring writer, and you’d pay witness to my enduring passion for crime. Picture me sprinting through a suburban shopping centre with twigs in my hair, dragging three children in states of undress to a book signing in its final remaining minutes. Harry Bosch’s creator Michael Connelly was in town promoting his latest novel. We’d been waylaid by a small accident in the park but neither that, nor the crawling traffic, was going to get in the way of what I needed to say.
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  3. Connelly looked for all intents and purposes as though he had packed up and was preparing to retreat when we burst into the bookshop like gargoyles from Dante’s Inferno. My baby was screaming, the toddler was catatonic over a missing shoe and in legitimate need of a Band-Aid and we were all unaccountably covered in mud. I held Connelly’s crime novel up with one hand and yanked the stroller to a stop with the other, calling out to him to: “Wait! Please!” He looked around, a large solid man with a wise face and eyes that understood the world of criminal behaviour. He regarded me solemnly through his glasses. “Sorry we’re late,” I said breathlessly. “They, uh…” I gestured down at my miniature entourage, “… got undressed in a park and I couldn’t stop them and I told them you were here and we had to hurry but they didn’t listen and now I’ve nearly missed out on telling you how much I love your books and admire you and one day I want to be a writer too, just like you.”
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  5. “Mum? You’re weird,” interjected the five year old. Not to be discouraged, I placed my copy of the book in front of him, reddening with embarrassment and asked, “Would you mind signing this?”
  6. After a lengthy pause he spoke. “Sure,” he said, sitting resignedly and reaching for his pen. (I understand now how tedious and dispiriting these promotional trips can be). “Your children are very dirty,” he observed non-judgmentally, handing me back my inscribed novel. “Thank you,” I squeaked, hoping that was not what he had written on the title page. No amount of embarrassment is too great, no distance too far, for me to pay respects to the craftsmen of this great literary genre, even if they write “Best wishes” and not “I believe in you, too!”.

       Now, if I were on a work jaunt tomorrow – clearly this is me fantasising as I will most likely be sitting in on my eight-year-old’s guitar lesson – there would be no better companion than The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith, a ripper crime novel with another rumpled super-sleuth at its centre. For lovers of crime or those curious to peer into an intoxicating mix of London celebrity, be it the vulgar rich or the down and out, Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling has tons to offer. As you would know by now, this novel was actually written by J.K. Rowling and much has been made of her authorship being leaked against her will on Twitter. Perhaps understandably, given the lukewarm reception her earlier title The Casual Vacancy received, Rowling wanted to fly under the radar.

At the heart of this deftly written crime debut is another brilliant but damaged protagonist: Cormoran Strike is an Oxford University dropout down on his luck. He has returned from Afghanistan missing a limb, his long-term girlfriend has deserted him and his work is going to hell. Emotionally depleted, physically crippled, up to his bloodshot eyeballs in debt and besieged daily with death threats, Strike is on the verge of packing it in. The day a young secretary named Robin from Temporary Solutions arrives his luck begins to change. Within the first minutes of Robin’s placement Strike is approached by John Bristow, a wealthy lawyer from a privileged family who wants the apparent suicide of his sister re-investigated. Lula Landry was a world famous supermodel before plunging to her death from the balcony of her Mayfair apartment. Bristow offers money upfront to explore what the police are calling a closed case. And what’s more, the lawyer reveals that Strike is linked to a tragedy in the Bristow family past. In a moment of pure desperation, the hapless detective decides to accept the job and with the help of his surprisingly resourceful new assistant he begins to pick away at the strands of mystery surrounding the case.

Piece by piece, Strike exposes the unexplained circumstances leading to Landry’s demise between cigarette breaks and visits to the pub. Each morning he tries unsuccessfully to hide the evidence of his less than ideal life circumstances from his secretary: his camp bed, empty Pot-O-Noodle containers and prosthesis are concealed from view. Cormoran’s troubled past, including the suicide of his own drug-addicted ex-groupie mother, afford him special insight into a world the rich and famous inhabit, a world he must delve into in order to uncover the truth. Deceit, lies and greed polluted the celebrity supermodel’s orbit up until her untimely death and clearly Rowling has a razor sharp perception of the ways in which predators in this sort of environment operate.

The Cuckoo’s Calling hums with all the energy of the great English city in which it is set. Rowling mines the complex lives of Londoners, from Mayfair to the East End, for our entertainment and pleasure. Compelling, thrilling, witty and wise, it held me in its grip till the final pages. But above all, Cormoran Strike feels like my new best friend. I can’t wait for J.K. Rowling’s next installment so he and I can hang out on the streets of Soho once again. That will be 2014’s illicit pleasure.