Consider the strange and remarkable case of JK Rowling. Her first book, for children, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was rejected by at least 12 publishers. It was bought for £2,500 and published, in 1997, in an edition of about 1,000 copies.
Rowling’s storytelling struck an immediate chord with juvenile readers. Within a year, she was winning all the children’s book prizes. By the time two Harry Potter sequels – The Chamber of Secrets (1998) and The Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) – had been launched, Rowling was a pawn turned queen, and her work a global cult.
Not since Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories had a writer of Scots ancestry – indeed, any writer – achieved such an astounding audience. Subsequent Harry Potter adventures smashed all known sales records. In 2004, Forbes magazine named Rowling the first person to become a billion-dollar author.
Just as remarkable, in 2007, Rowling completed her seven-volume Harry Potter sequence, withThe Deathly Hallows, nailing down almost every last detail of a mind-bendingly intricate plot, and bringing an elephantine narrative to a satisfying and possibly open-ended conclusion. In the annals of British literature, Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an unprecedented achievement.
Inevitably, there was a reckoning. In 2011, after a troubled hiatus, Rowling fired her agent and the following year published The Casual Vacancy, a novel for adults, under her own name. The reviews were mixed, but she still sold more than a million copies worldwide, while clearly relishing this second act in her literary career.
Meanwhile, like Conan Doyle, who followed Holmes and Watson with his Professor Challenger novels, Rowling hankered for another series. Unlike him, she wanted to write and publish without the hype or expectation surrounding her literary life. Secretly, she adopted a pseudonym and forged a new protagonist. Once again, the author of Harry Potter was in the business of creating an alternative world for herself. She almost got away with it.
Almost, but not quite. When, in April 2013, Little Brown published a debut crime novel by a certain Robert Galbraith, described as “a former plainclothes Royal Military Police investigator”, there was a smattering of excellent reviews, the usual modest sales (some 1,500 copies) and then… Hey presto! Rowling’s secret was out. She was “Robert Galbraith”.
Sure enough, The Cuckoo’s Calling became a No 1 bestseller. Whatever Rowling’s aspirations to control the execution and reception of her mid-career progress after Harry Potter, the awkward truth is that she is now the rich-and-famous victim of her celebrity, with all the consequent stresses of such a fate. Intriguingly, her second Robert Galbraith novel is a playful, obsessive yarn about the ironies of the literary life.
Novelist Owen Quine goes missing having just completed a manuscript replete with vicious pen-portraits of his nearest and dearest. In the works of Conan Doyle’s contemporary, PG Wodehouse, such a premise is the basis for farce. Not here. Tellingly, for Rowling, Quine’s literary evisceration of his agent, his editor, and his publisher forms the basis for a detective story that does not merely suspend disbelief but hoists it like an escape artist over an abyss of improbabilities.
Private detective Cormoran Strike (named after a mythological Cornish giant) is commissioned by Quine’s wife to track him down and bring him home. After 123 pages of teasing stuff about literary London, revenge tragedy and the Latin for silkworm (Bombyx Mori), Strike finds Quine horribly murdered (trussed, eviscerated, and putrid) in an empty house, 179 Talgarth Road, W14. There is no shortage of nasty suspects with creepy hidden drives, ample opportunity and oodles of motive.
The book isn’t perfect. It’s a tad too long, and the suspect interrogations grow repetitive. Sometimes the reader feels Rowling may be trying too hard to move away from Hogwarts. The fair amount of swearing reminds one of a rebellious teenager set free.
Some will also argue that while Harry Potter altered the landscape in a way no children’s novel ever has, here Rowling does the opposite: She plays to form. “The Silkworm” is a very well-written, wonderfully entertaining take on the traditional British crime novel, but it breaks no new ground, and Rowling seems to know that. Robert Galbraith may proudly join the ranks of English, Scottish and Irish crime writers such as Tana French, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, John Connolly, Kate Atkinson and Peter Robinson, but she wouldn’t overshadow them. Still, to put any author on that list is very high praise.
The upside of being as well known as Rowling is obvious — sales, money, attention. That’s not what she’s after here. The downside — and her reason for using the pseudonym — is that telling a story needs a little bit of anonymity. Rowling deserves that chance, even if she can’t entirely have it. We can’t unring that bell, but in a larger sense, we readers get more. We get the wry observations when we can’t ignore the author’s identity and we get the escapist mystery when we can. In the end, the fictional publisher Daniel Chard got it right: “Content is king,” and on that score, both J. K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith triumph.
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