Matthew Effect

Review – The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)


I previously wrote about The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Matthew Effect, in the aftermath of the big reveal of J.K. Rowling as the true author and Robert Galbraith as her pseudonym.

I’ve been putting off a full review of The Cuckoo’s Calling because I think it is so hard for me to separate the actual book from the hype surrounding J.K. Rowling.  In a way this shows how relative everything is – how much an opinion of a book can be influenced by factors other than the actual text of the book itself.  Books just can’t be read in a vacuum, so life goes on.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is like this:  Idolized celeb-model falls out apartment window, police deem this a suicide.  Down-on-his-luck, ex-military, prosthetic legged PI Cormoran Strike and his eager, recently acquired temp worker Robin are approached by the model’s family to investigate the death.

The concepts here are current – J.K. Rowling has crafted a plot which is culturally relevant and very now .  The focus on our obsession with celebrity culture and the paparazzi reminded me of Between You and Me by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus.

Rowling is clearly a wonderful writer, and there are scenes throughout the book illustrating this.  In one scene Rowling describes Strike’s experience amid the paparazzi snapping photos madly as he tries to escort a model out of a club.  The description of the madness of being submerged in this sea of cameras is vivid and almost horrifying, and makes me have a bit of sympathy for celebrities who are constantly caught in flash bulbs.  Rowling also aces internal dialogues, all that talk/fear/story each of us has going on in our head.  PI Cormoran Strike and his temp worker Robin have wonderfully depicted internal debates about their interactions with each other, as so often happens in reality.

That being said, I think the appeal here of both subject matter and characters is strikingly female.  As other reviewers have mentioned, it would have been difficult to believe that this book came from a man, a war veteran, as Robert Galbraith is presented.  Strike’s concerns in life seem written by a woman to me and incongruous with his character – he waits until his temp is gone to use the restroom, is constantly spraying air freshener in his office, is hesitant to speak his mind to Robin or reveal to her that he has only one leg.  Cormoran Strike is not truly a gruff PI, but perhaps what a woman would love a gruff man to be.  Presented with the popular Scandinavian mystery characters of our time, Strike appears rather tame.  Think of Inspector Erlendur of Jar City, who abandoned his wife and children as a young man and only visits his home to fall asleep in a lounge chair;  Lisbeth Salander, a bisexual, unfriendly hacker who tortures for revenger;  Jo Nesbo‘s Harry Hole, who sinks into opium addiction and leaves his job at the police force entirely. Strike’s character works for the tone of the book, and will appeal to readers who enjoy cozy mysteries more in the style of Agatha Christie than the currently popular fare of bleak dysfunction.

The great joy of the true cozy mystery is its simplicity – instead of hackers, serial killers, torture, gore, chase scenes, or other bells and whistles, cozies present a crime, a scene of the crime, a list of suspects.  Rowling has created a baffling mystery out of these simple elements.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith on

The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Matthew Effect.


Let’s talk about this new JK Rowling book, shall we? Quick summary of events thus far: A new mystery novel is published in April, by “Robert Galbraith”, called The Cuckoo’s Calling. There’s no excitement at its release – according to the the book sells about 500 copies in the US.  And then, last week, the big reveal, in a tweet: Robert Galbraith is JK Rowling. This is leaked to the friend of the wife of someone at JK Rowling’s law firm, who tweeted a hint to a Sunday Times reporter. He investigated, confronted the Rowling camp, and they confirmed. This is the stuff epic films are made of.

And now we’re here, all caught up in this present moment. The secret is out, and it is big news. Bloggers, blogging.  Reporters, madly covering the story.  Readers, reading. And suddenly, this book is hot. I’m reading it – but I’m not alone, because everyone else is reading it. As I’m writing this, The Cuckoo’s Calling is #1 on both Kindle store and book store; it is #1 on; bookstores are ordering more copies as they can’t keep it in stock.

And yet – we’re looking at the same book, the exact same work of mystery fiction, that has been in existence since April.  It was there, and none of us took note or cared to read it.

This is an amazing real life illustration of what sociologists call the Matthew effect, name from this Bible passage:  “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.”  – Matthew 25:29, King James Version

The idea here is that success breeds success – the most renowned scientist gets all the credit for the discovery, although the others working under him or her may put in more work.  Researchers have shown that bestseller or top ranking lists influence what we think we like and what we decide to purchase.  If you are already famous, we want to make you more famous.  If you aren’t famous?  We might be a little less interested in what you’re selling, and it might be a little bit harder to break through.

JK Rowling illustrated this for us in a glaringly obvious way.  She made The Cuckoo’s Calling an overnight success, thanks to her existing fame.  The quality of her novel did not change. She is reportedly sad that she was outed so soon, and I am too.  It is now impossible to listen to The Cuckoo’s Calling on my delightful little wireless headphones without some sort of bias in mind.  As I’ve read most of the Potter books quite a while ago, and I read a ton of mystery fiction, I keep thinking of the writing as somehow cartoonish or fanciful.  But is that really there, in the book?  Or is it just in my mind, an association with a children’s author?  I can understand why JK Rowling would want to break away from all the baggage her other tales bring, as they are so stylized.

I think keeping her identity hidden would have been a wonderful sort of social experiment.  What would we all really say, if we never knew it was her?  More importantly, what would everyone not say as we were all too busy reading the other things we were planning to read, before this secret was revealed?  Would the book just fade away, a sequel never published?  The Matthew effect and book sales before the big reveal say yes, it’d be difficult for The Cuckoo’s Calling to gain success without that Rowling glimmer, shimmer, and shine that we all want to touch.

Further reading:

Robert Galbraith’s official page

nytimes review of Cuckoo’s Calling

Robert Merton’s ‘The Matthew Effect in Science”

The Matthew Effect: How Advantage Begets Further Advantage by Daniel Rigley on Amazon

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell on Amazon