What did the critics really think of "Cuckoo's Calling" (before they knew it was by J K Rowling)?

Actually, they liked it. Galbraith's Cormoran Strike thriller could mark the start of another intensely successful Rowling series.

A reinvigorated J K Rowling has stuck two fingers up to the literary establishment with her first novel under the pseudonym 'Robert Galbraith'. The Cuckoo’s Calling was met with widespread acclaim upon its publication in April before the true identity of the author was revealed by The Sunday Times yesterday. Rowling has spoken of the “pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name” and this pleasure will inevitably be tinged with a sense of vindication, following the mixed reviews received by Rowling’s first foray into literature post-Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy.

Before Rowling was exposed, publishers Mullholland initially claimed that the book, released in April, was based on Galbraith’s own experience in military service.  The crime thriller follows the elaborately named Cormoran Strike, a wounded Afghan veteran who now pursues a career as a private investigator. Alongside his new secretary Robin Ellacott, he investigates the suspicious suicide of celebrity supermodel Lula Landry.

Geoffrey Wansell of the Mail showers compliments upon Galbraith’s “auspicious debut”. Particular praise is reserved for Cormoran Strike who possesses a “dark fascination”, and is the most interesting fictional detective since “the wonderful Eddie Ginley, nightclub-comedian and wannabe private eye, in director Stephen Frears’ debut film Gumshoe [1971]”. Wansell astutely concluded in May that “there is no sign whatsoever that this is Galbraith’s first novel”.

Publisher’s Weekly was similarly appreciative of Galbraith’s “stellar debut”. It celebrates the novel’s “host of vividly drawn suspects and witnesses” and its “elegant solution”, and is once again, hugely impressed by Strike, “a complex and compelling sleuth.” It concludes that “readers will hope to see a lot more of this memorable sleuthing team".

Teresa Jacobsen of the Library Journal flattered Galbraith with even more inventive adulation, describing the novel as “like a mash-up of Charles Dickens and Penny Vincenzi”. Jacobsen found the novel engrossing, “laden with plenty of twists and distractions”. So too did Marcel Berlins of the Times. He commends the “sparkling dialogue”, and also Galbraith’s critique of celebrity culture.  A “scintillating debut novel set in the world of models, rappers, [and] fashion designers...” manages to produce a “convincing portrayal of the emptiness of wealth and glamour".

The second Cormoran Strike thriller is to be published in 2014. Reviews of the sequel are however set to be skewed by Rowling’s fame. They will surely not demonstrate the same unassuming inspection enjoyed by Galbraith’s first novel.

Rowling's pleaure following Galbraith's success will be intensified following the mixed reviews of "The Casual Vacancy". Photograph: Getty Images.
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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump