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.
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.