When you are incredibly successful in one genre, as the author of the Harry Potter series most definitely was—450 million copies sold as of May 2015 accruing JK Rowling $1 billion in royalties—the question you face is, what next. It would seem to be almost impossible to follow up with another children’s book. Expectations would be phenomenal, not to mention the legions of critics waiting to pounce on the slightest error. So the next best thing is to write something anonymously that is different enough but also links to the elements—mystery, suspense, curiosity, friendships, and an investigative bent – that made the Harry Potter series so successful.
JK Rowling wrote the first book in her crime series under the nom du plume of Robert Galbraith. “I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience,” she said. “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.” No one noticed the book until a Sunday Times scoop revealed that the author was JK Rowling. Within a few hours the book catapulted to the No 1 position on the Amazon bestseller list in Britain and the USA.
Switching genres is not unusual.
AA Milne first wrote The Red House Mystery before creating Pooh and Eeyore. Roald Dahl finished Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and immediately switched to a gory crime story, Lamb to the Slaughter. Ian Fleming took the reverse route. In 1952, he began James Bond’s first adventure in Casino Royale with the words ‘The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning’. Ten years later, after his first major heart attack, he wrote a children’s tale about the adventures of a family and their magical car, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, having first narrated it to his young son, Caspar.
When I first heard that JK Rowling was going to write a crime novel, I was excited and apprehensive. Excited because I devour mysteries and apprehensive because having read the dying prose of the later Harry Potters particularly the last two novels, I, like many others, wondered whether that particular well had dried up.
The Cuckoo’s Calling launched the investigative career of Cormoran Strike, the illegitimate child of a rockstar and a ‘supergroupie’, a former military policeman who lost a leg to a landmine in Afghanistan, and now has a prosthetic leg.
“I would never read a book where the main character is called Cormoran Strike,” said a friend who is an avid reader of crime fiction. Names matter, and in choosing a name for her burly detective that evokes the image of a bird, Rowling has slipped, even if her choice was dictated more perhaps by the fact that Cormoran is the name of a giant in the folklore of Cornwall. Rowling recognises this shortcoming in the third book of the series, Career of Evil, when she has her protagonist say, ‘I was nearly christened Eric Bloom Strike…Let’s face it, Cormoran’s not much bloody better.’
The Cuckoo’s Calling was not a breezy read. It had a gumshoe detective with ‘the high, bulging forehead, broad nose and thick brows of a young Beethoven who had taken to boxing’, reminiscent of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. But a convoluted plot and a far-fetched motive made it far from pleasurable to read. Nevertheless, Rowling’s gift for storytelling, for pacing, and for seamlessly constructing believable characters in the glitterati world of 1990s London, were evident. One connected with the abrasive Cormoran, and turned to pages to find out how his relationship would develop with his sidekick, a new temp, Robin, an efficient and meticulous young woman who despite being engaged to an uptight accountant, had some unusual qualities—she could drive a getaway car with ease, and was a topper in a self-defence course.
The second book, The Silkworm, was set in the publishing world. A novelist goes missing (and turns up murdered on page 124—not a spoiler since intelligent readers expect that to happen right from the start) after he completes a book with poisonous pen-portraits of his close friends and relatives. The novelist’s wife hires Strike to find him. Here Rowling is able to sketch a wicked portrayal of the publishing industry—the bully-agent, the rapacious publisher, the alcoholic editor and so on. However, this time too, Rowling falters when it comes to the murderer and reason for the murder. The denouement left me feeling dissatisfied because the psychological reasoning underlying the murder was too convoluted.
The third book, Career of Evil, I am happy to say, is much much better than the first two books on every level. In a murder mystery, one wants menace, suspense, protagonists with whom one connects at an elemental level, and a story that is able to keep disbelief at bay.
Though it introduces Cormoran Strike awkwardly—‘six foot three and scowling, Strike’s shirt hung open, revealing a monkeyish mass of dark chest hair’—once the story kicks in, Rowling is able to weave a magical spell. The menace looms from page one. It begins with the murderer’s point of view and then switches to Robin’s perspective when she takes the package from the murderer who comes in the guise of a courier. It contains a sawn off leg of a woman, scarred in places, ‘the toes of the foot bent back to fit.’ A murderer who regards a human as a package.
To craft suspense, the author has to make a reader care about what happens to the characters. Rowling displays the capacity to create that connection between the reader and her main characters—at least the ones who are on the right side of the moral compass. She links the exercise of solving the question of the murderer’s identity to Cormoran’s personal life. The murderer is a man from his past. Cormoran has managed to make life miserable for not one or even two but four psychopaths. Too many you think. But Rowling is skilful in the telling of their stories even if they are somewhat clichéd. A young man who obsesses with being evil, a sadistic husband, a paedophile of a stepfather, and a gang boss. Rowling’s smart choice allows her to tell us more about Cormoran’s past through flashbacks, which weave in and out of the tale, and highlights the noble elements in his character. The best parts of the book deal with one of the suspects, his stepfather who, Cormoran is convinced, injected and killed his mother with a heroin overdose. The other three are men whom Cormoran put away in the course of his military and investigative career. The investigation blends the techniques of an ‘Ace Detective Agency’—shadowing or interviewing those close to the suspects— with forays into Cormoran’s memories and Robin’s travails with her love life.
This connects to another aspect of the book that made it a page-turner—the relationship between Cormoran and Robin. For purists in the early to mid-20th century, romance had no place in the life of a detective who was supposed to be a man of the intellect, of reason, not of passion. Not anymore. Tastes have changed. We do like our protagonist to have a love interest, and even better, if the path of that passion is rocky. Think Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane’s saga or Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting. This is where Rowling excels. She establishes the mutual attraction between Cormoran and his secretary, now business partner Robin, and their reluctance to act on it for fear that their working partnership will be irrevocably affected. Robin is getting married in two months. ‘There’s still time, he thought. For what, he did not specify, even to himself.’ More cleverly, Rowling puts Robin at risk—that we know from dipping into the murderer’s thoughts in the first chapter.
For the first time in the series, Robin emerges as an equal to Cormoran. We learn of a horrific rape in her past and we understand why she clings to the annoying fiancé and her goal to recreate a sense of self-worth. It is this move on Rowling’s part that anchors the story and gives it texture.
I do have some quibbles though, which pertain to three aspects that are interconnected. Rowling’s characterization of the suspects is caricaturish. They are pure monsters with no redeeming qualities. One of the greats of detective fiction, Dorothy Sayers gave a talk at Oxford on ‘Aristotle on Detective Fiction’ where she highlighted Aristotle’s demand that the characters must be ‘reasonable’, which Sayers interpreted as ‘realistic’. This means that the plot should be concerned not with the discovery of an evil person but of an honourable but flawed character. That makes a reader feel pity and fear, and experience surprise when the ending is revealed.
The second aspect is the distribution of clues. One of the rules of a murder mystery is that a reader must remember the clues from earlier parts of the book in order to fully enjoy the final revelation. But when you have four (or at least three) life histories, and all are evil monsters, it becomes harder to distinguish between them. Had Rowling given each one a redeeming quality, and made them less of caricatures, it would have been easier for readers to make that distinction.
The third aspect is the occurrence that postpones the detective’s discovery of the murderer. Without giving away anything, an action on the part of the protagonist that is possible but improbable, delays the discovery of the murderer. It considerably diminished this reader’s satisfaction with the final denouement.
And finally, Rowling’s description of the setting could do with more finesse. She had a similar problem in her earlier books where descriptions read like a travel guide. ‘He walked briskly out onto Whitechapel Road, where market stalls stood: more cheap clothing, a multitude of gaudy plastic goods.’ Or this picture of a small town in Scotland: ‘The small town looked prosperous in the sunshine as Strike strolled up the sloping high street to the central square, where a unicorn topped pillar stood in a basin of flowers. A round stone in the pavement bore the town’s old Roman name, Trimontium, which Strike knew must refer to the triple peaked hill nearby.’ Rowling could benefit from studying crime writers like Maurizio di Giovanni or Donna Leon who can evoke the smell and taste of a Naples or Venice, down to the rhythm of the cobblestones.
But these, as I said earlier, are mere quibbles. They should not prevent us from recognising JK Rowling’s prowess as a weaver of powerful tales. JK Rowling’s story well, I am happy to report, has not dried up.