Wednesday 13 November 2019

JK Rowling and how she made cuckoos of the critics

Jake Kerridge on the new thriller written under a pseudonym by the 'Harry Potter' author

Jake Kerridge

Those strange muffled thumps you've been hearing all week are the sounds made by the country's supposedly clued-in and razor-sharp book critics kicking themselves for not realising that Robert Galbraith, the author of one of this year's most acclaimed debut crime novels, was actually none other than JK Rowling.

The Cuckoo's Calling was published in April with the sort of fanfare that one would expect to accompany a debut novel – a few polite paragraphs here and there but no real excitement. Although there were lines for the dustjacket from the writers Val McDermid and Mark Billingham and some enthusiastic but short reviews in the papers, nobody guessed Galbraith's true identity. But the clues were there.

First of all, Ian Rankin let the cat out of the bag last year when he announced that Rowling had told him she was writing a crime novel. Cue puzzlement when her first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, turned out to have no mystery element. We should all have been combing the pages of debut crime novels for signs of Rowling's authorship.

But the major clue is that Rowling has always been a crime writer manquée. Several of the Harry Potter stories are basically whodunits. The authorial legerdemain by which Rowling makes you think something about Professor Quirrell, Sirius Black or Scabbers the rat, and then makes you gasp by showing you how you've missed the numerous clues as to their true nature, has always seemed to me to recall Agatha Christie.

In The Cuckoo's Calling itself, a further clue to its author's identity comes in the form of frequent digs at the general venality and insensitivity of the press and the paparazzi – although one diatribe that one would guess reflects the author's true feelings ("I can't believe it's legal, what the press are allowed to do in this country") is spoken by one of the novel's least sympathetic characters.

Really, though, the biggest clue of all is that, as many critics pointed out back in April, the novel is the work of a master storyteller. And in its main character, Rowling has created a quixotic hero whom Harry Potter would like and respect.

He is Cormoran Strike, a former military policeman now working as a private eye. Like Harry, he carries the wounds of old battles: not a scar on the forehead but a missing lower leg, blown off in Afghanistan. A bear of a man with the "high, bulging forehead, broad nose and thick brows of a young Beethoven who had taken to boxing", he is near-destitute and sleeping on his office floor, having finally ended his long and destructive relationship with his rich, mercurial girlfriend Charlotte (a character whose vivid presence haunts the novel despite appearing in only the most fleeting of glimpses).

Strike's Dr Watson is Robin Ellacott, a 25-year-old girl newly arrived in London who is temping as his secretary while trying to find a proper job, but finds herself irresistibly drawn to the not-actually-that-glamorous world of private detection: "To prove, to solve, to catch, to protect: these were things worth doing," she thinks. She is a representative, it seems, of the generation who grew up with Harry Potter, most of them now in their 20s and probably forced to make a choice between work they love and work that will provide a decent living.

This being fiction, Robin chooses Strike, of course, and their relationship is highly entertaining, a quirkier version of the Perry Mason-Della Street dynamic.

Their case here is an investigation into whether a supermodel's plunge from the balcony of her penthouse flat in Mayfair in London on a snowy winter's night was suicide or murder – the book's title, taken from Christina Rossetti's poem A Dirge, refers to the dead girl's nickname, "Cuckoo". The novel is firmly in the Christie tradition, with the reader obliged to keep in mind the details of a dozen characters' alibis if he or she wants to solve the mystery.

The solution seemed over-complicated to me, but despite the fact that Rowling has clearly sweated blood over working it all out, it hardly matters because the puzzle is not the point of the book. Like all the best crime writers, Rowling uses the form as a way of bringing many disparate characters together and seeing how they spark off each other.

Some readers of The Causal Vacancy complained that it was a British state-of-the-nation novel that seemed to offer no conclusion more profound than that poor people are nice and rich people are horrible.

The same is true of The Cuckoo's Calling to a degree, but that didn't prevent me from enjoying her acidulous commentary on the follies of the idle rich, such as when she describes the customers in a posh boutique "examining price tags with expert eyes, selecting four-figure bags of alligator skin with a pleasureless determination to get their money's worth out of their loveless marriages".

As I think that quotation shows, Rowling can really write.

In short, this is a sharply contemporary novel full of old-fashioned virtues; there is room for improve ment in terms of construction, but it is wonderfully fresh and funny. I hope this is the inaugu-ration of a series that lasts long enough to make Harry Potter look like a flash in the pan.

Irish Independent

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