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J.K Roowling's first psydonym
11 December, 2013
Potential television series title #21: LONDON STRIKE
Alright, let’s address the hippogriff in the room: finding out that J.K. Rowling published a book under a pseudonym is something that I had I expected might happen post-Potter (and, embarrassingly, searched for), but when the question was brought up as to whether or not she'd write under one, she dismissed the idea, saying that people would quickly find out it was her (which, after reading The Casual Vacancy I concur with, as the tagline could have been "WELCOME TO DURSLEYVILLE"), so the idea was sort of debunked for me.
First, I feel that it’s necessary to offer in preamble that I actually liked The Casual Vacancy. Yes, it offers some views that some may find preachy, and Rowling’s stream-of-narrative writing lacks subtlety and dilutes the rawness of her characters. However, I also found it quite affecting- in fact, I’ve since read the novel a few more times more objectively, and the craft behind it becomes more apparent with each re-read. Did Franzen handle social satire better? Yes, but Rowling is in tight possession of a unique, wry wit that’s all her own. I think that the problem that many fans had is that they’re accustomed to the J.K. Rowling who writes about morality on a large scale- great battles of good and evil staged with dragons and goblins and ghosts, entrenched in themes of friendship, love, and death. The Casual Vacancy is also a morality tale- but the characters are so clueless, self-destructive and human, that a fan of the Harry Potter books can’t help but emerge disappointed.
Fortunately, The Cuckoo’s Calling doesn’t strive for such heights.
When I first heard about the book (after fixing the hole in the ceiling caused by my gargantuan leap of joy) I was excited. I mean, I’d much rather see J.K. Rowling whip out that killer gift for world building that she has in the realm of science fiction or fantasy, but she is equally skilled in mystery writing. I’ve always, always thought of The Chamber of Secrets as a mystery novel. That was always the appeal of it to me, and I felt that it stood out from the rest of the books because of it. But after J.K. Rowling wrote in the FAQ section of the new Cormoran Stike website that all of the Harry Potter books are essentially who-dun-its, with the exception of the fifth, I realized that they are. Each is essentially a search for a culprit using a limited amount of clues.
Potential television series title #19: BBC’S SHERLOCK HARRY—Ep. 1: “A Study in Potions”
But one doesn’t even need to view the Harry Potter books as mysteries in order to expect Rowling to be a great mystery writer- the immense amount of plotting and interweaving of detail throughout the books is commendable, and alone legitimizes the size of whatever paycheck Rowling got after every book. One of the biggest problems film makers had when adapting the final books of the series is that they came to realize that details that they had carelessly discarded bore great significance in the final books. An invisibility cloak becoming a Hallow, a friend’s pet rat an animagus. We know how skilled J.K. Rowling is at creating red-herrings and false trails already.
One doesn’t even need to read all of the books to understand this. Just one chapter, in the Goblet of Fire. In an interview with Charlie Rose last year, J.K. Rowling revealed that chapter 11 of the fourth installment of the series was one that she wrote and rewrote the most, in order to draw suspicion away from a newspaper article written about Mad-Eye Moody. The intention was that it was to be written so that it could be interpreted and reinterpreted by other characters and the readers, so that we wouldn’t figure out the truth about Moody’s character until the end. This shows us that Rowling has an eye for the way the reader thinks, something that comes in handy for her towards the climax of Calling.
Still, I had my reservations (see all 503 pages of The Casual Vacancy).
Potential television series title #7: ROBERT GALBRAITH’S (A.K.A. J.K. ROWLING’S (it’s out now, so we won’t look like douchebags for marketing it this way)) CORMORAN & ROBIN
But I was pleasantly surprised by The Cuckoo’s Calling. I don’t read much mystery, although I did read a lot of Agatha Christie when I was younger and watch BBC’S Sherlock now. When I do encounter a mystery, however, I judge it by how well it manages to surprise me. For me, this includes the author laying out all the details for the reader at the beginning- no big surprises towards the end masquerading as a clever twist that are really meant to keep the reader from finding out who did it. It’s the job of a good detective—and a good mystery writer—to piece together the clues in a way that the reader doesn’t, but theoretically could have. Rowling does this, balancing a cast of characters and an assortment of clues so numerous that I can’t imagine even the most dedicated mystery savant keeping up. The suspects at one point all seem to have iron-cast motive and opportunity, Rowling quickly outsmarting the reader.
The plotting and the sheer intricacy of the details woven throughout might be the most impressive that I’ve ever encountered in a modern mystery novel. The utter tautness of the book, quite frankly, blew me away. It sticks to the traditional mystery formula. Rowling doesn’t have a Gillian Flynn-like touch on the genre. There’s the obligatory introduction of each character and clue to the point where it feels like speed-dating, and there’s a long exposition at the end about what happens. I was so impressed by the ending, though, that the cookie-cutter feel of it became subdued. And everything- which is perhaps what was most refreshing- is realistic. There’s no shocking conclusion and- thankfully- no ludicrous segueways between connections.
Rowling’s gift for prose is evident, once again showing her finesse at maneuvering the English language. Although hardcore mystery fans may get a little tired of Rowling’s Dickensian style, I was always interested. In the sluggish, monotonous mid-morning hours at work I found myself wanting to pick up my copy of the book to see what happened next.
Her characters are great. The relationship between John and Robin is sweet but covers all its bases- I like that their friendship is just a “friendship,” but it’s not like they’re not going to each consider the romantic possibilities of the other. Cormoran’s handicapped, ex-military character felt a little too John Watson for me, but his role as a character that prevails and doesn’t wallow-for the most part-is satisfying. I enjoyed Robin’s character too, and hope her part is bigger in the next installment.
The presence of socioeconomic dynamics is featured heavily throughout the novel, and plays key parts in the mystery itself, lingering among character motivations and plot connections. I thought that it was a fascinating feature to include in a mystery novel, and gave it its distinct taste- but I hope that this doesn’t become a recurring theme throughout the series. It’s relevant here, but I prefer it as the atmosphere for one mystery alone. These dynamics are relevant ones in our culture, but the way that Rowling presented it in Vacancy was found unpalatable by a lot of readers. If she keeps it in play for each of her subsequent mysteries the way she does here, then the reader might grow bored. Some series’ find their tone in a shift of setting, going from the slums to high society. It’s the job of the main characters to keep the setting grounded, and with the team of John Bristow and Robin Ellacott, Rowling’s got the materials on hand.
In other ways, however, it feels like Rowling hasn’t found her tone as a writer. The ambiance here doesn’t take on the meaty, rich qualities that have characterized the most renowned mystery writers- Robert Louis Stevenson’s gift for describing shadowy alleys and nightmarish supernaturalism is his hallmark, Christie equally adept at creating grim atmospheres sans the magical realism. Rowling’s writing is beautiful, but it seems to languish in contemporaneity. In this way it’s not an escapist novel- immersive, yes, but I found myself becoming more aware of the present rather than absconding from it.
Bottom line, The Cuckoo’s Calling incorporates potent mystery writing, intricate plotting, and likable characters, showcasing some of Rowling’s best skills as a writer, even if her others don’t appeal entirely to the target audience here.
UPDATE: I've finished the book, and I was right about Rowling's deftness at mystery writing, particularly around the part about The Chamber of Secrets. Full review to come, but highly recommended. Not phenomenal or on par with Potter, but all the things that didn't work in Vacancy are very much present except that they work in a mystery setting, and that it's all very, very good. Tightest, most intricate plotting I've ever seen in a mystery novel.
So, finding out that J.K. Rowling published a book under a pseudonym is something I'd always expected (and, embarassingly, searched for), but when the question was brought up as to whether she'd write one, she said everyone would figure it out right away (which, after reading The Casual Vacancy I concur with, as the tagline could have been "WELCOME TO DURSLEYVILLE"), so the idea was sort of debunked for me. I'm slightly disappointed that I haven't heard of it, which means that it hasn't received enough acclaim to cross over to the mainstream on its own, which is less than I'd like. But people-
a) It's a J.K. Rowling book
b) We don't have to wait for it. It's already out.
I liked The Casual Vacancy. But I think that the main issue many fans had was that J.K. Rowling is an author who deals with morality on a huge scale, epic battles of good vs. evil, friendship, loneliness, adolescent turmoil and every other drama you could think of set on a stage featuring dragons and ghosts and goblins. Her knack for making rich as well as lovable characters is her hallmark, so segueing into a world where the characters are not only clueless and blind but also distinctly unlikable couldn't have been very easy for fans. Also, her voice as omniscient third-person narrator is certainly well-written as a stream of prose, but sort of diluted the significance of her characters; Vacancy also lacks the edge that made similar novels by Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) and Maria Semple (Where'd You Go, Bernadette), better. After multiple re-readings of Vacancy, I've grown to like the book a lot more- or rather appreciate it more, because while the craft behind it becomes more obvious with each read its overcast mood is unaccompanied by a payoff.
But this is a crime novel. Why am I excited for this? Because I've always, always thought of The Chamber of Secrets as a mystery novel. You don't even need to look at that book alone to know that Rowling is a master of mystery writing, the seemingly meaningless details sprinkled throughout the Harry Potter series bearing much more gravitas in later installments (much to the chagrin of filmmakers, cutting out important details due to lack of knowledge of said installments). Red herrings and false trails are an essential component in mystery writing, which she is undoubtedly skilled at creating.
So I'll be much more wary of you now Ms. Rowling, and I while I would still prefer that you return to fantasy, or even science-fiction, and even though I sense that you're becoming a very hit-or-miss author, your hits are still potent enough for me to want to read anything and everything you'll ever write again.
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