The ninth novel from author and screenwriter Neil Cross, The Calling is an unusual book in that it’s the prequel to the TV show Luther, which was itself written by Cross. Sensibly avoiding anything in the way of an origin story, here we see the earlier but still fully-formed character of John Luther taking on the case of an appalling double murder and the theft of a baby, a crime which drives the troubled detective to spread himself dangerously thin. Driven to applying sometimes questionable methods, he not only attracts the attention of an internal investigation, but sees his marriage slipping further away from him with every day, while the man responsible spreads terror throughout the city.
There’s a strange thrill to reading descriptions on the page for characters already familiar from the small screen, or at least there is when they’re done as well as they are here. Front and centre is Luther himself, “a big man with a big walk”, whose written depiction is eerily accurate for Idris Elba – Cross even mentions in his acknowledgements that “Idris made Luther”. Given that this was written long after the TV series there’s a fascinating sense of a creative cycle – Cross created the character which Elba then inhabited, the actor’s screen portrayal feeding back into the author’s written portrayal. The supporting cast are equally impressively drawn, familiar names like Rose Teller, Zoe Luther and Mark North, with even Justin Ripley making a brief cameo.
Good characters don’t make a good book on their own however. Sticking to much the same formula as the TV series Cross delivers a gripping, complex and layered plot that’s paced to perfection and cleverly engineered to hook the reader and keep them on the edge of their seat. It reads as a natural extension of the show, the dialogue delivered perfectly to fit the characters and the writing kept tight and full of forward momentum. It’s a familiar structure that feels natural and suited to the storyline, complementing the TV series for those who have seen it but written well enough to work as a standalone novel for anyone coming in fresh.
Ultimately this is a polished, well plotted and enjoyable tense thriller in much the same vein as countless others, but the standout pleasure here is the characters, or more specifically the character of Luther. Far more than your standard ‘troubled detective’ he’s complex, flawed and believable, a perfect balance of power and fragility, and absolutely compelling. Whether you’re familiar with the TV show or not, if you’re a fan of british detective writing then this comes highly recommended.