J K Rowling’s whodunnit

As a story about literature, the affair of <em>The Cuckoo's Calling</em> merely shows that a book can change its shape from “astonishingly mature debut” to humdrum mid-period effort in the space of a couple of days.

As Daniel Radcliffe was rehearsing his heart out for Michael Grandage’s production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, J K Rowling was mounting her own attempt to move on from Harry Potter with the help of another differently abled hero, Cormoran Strike, the detective at the heart of her whodunnit-in-two-senses, The Cuckoo’s Calling.

But where an actor casting himself baldly against type risks giving the type still more power, leading to a performance discussed solely in negative terms (“un-Potter-like”), a novelist can achieve freedom from expectations not by striking out in a new, foolhardy direction (“Ian McEwan does comedy”) or pretending to write under a different name, but by actually writing under a different name. That is, until someone tweets about it and someone else turns the tweet into a newspaper column.

As in any good detective story, the ending becomes obvious once you know it. No, I’d never heard his name until he was outed as one of Rowling’s, but I can now confidently assert that I would have recognised Cormoran Strike as the product of the same sensibility as Severus Snape and Cornelius Fudge, just as I would have spotted an unmistakable Potterness in the character’s mythology.

Though Strike tends to provoke pity or scepticism rather than giddy whispers, he is nevertheless the Man Who Lived, surviving an attack not from a dark wizard but from a roadside bomb, which left him with a scar, rather than a prosthetic leg. Add to that Strike’s parentage (his father was a rock star) and his creator’s habit of using three paragraphs of description where none would do – and you begin to suspect that Rowling was trying less to engineer a private change of tack than to avoid accusations of repetition.

There has been a certain amount of forgivable cynicism about the revelation. A satirical piece on the Melville House Books website features a publisher decrying the leak as “motiveless”, before signing off: “Now if you’ll excuse me I have a few apartment open houses to get to.” Another strand of commentary insists that the affair tells us something about the publishing industry – but what? It is hardly surprising that a novel by a first-timer sells less well, despite warm reviews, than when revealed to be the work of a writer with a record of global pleasure-giving.

As a story about literature, the affair merely shows that a book can change its shape from “astonishingly mature debut” to humdrum mid-period effort in the space of a couple of days. Apart from a sprinkling of Leveson-era topicality, The Cuckoo’s Calling travels only the best-beaten genre paths. It has substantial (presumably coincidental) similarities to Ira Levin’s Sliver, another novel that hinges on a beautiful woman with sleazy neighbours being thrown from the balcony window of a lavish apartment block, while its hapless prose (“flinging discretion to the chilly wind”) and its TV-documentary-about-the-credit-crunch mode of urban portraiture (innumerable London landmarks, not a bit of atmosphere) recall William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms.

Rowling understands well enough how a book like this works. There are more suspects, red herrings and sudden reversals than you could shake a wand at. But Cormoran Strike presents all too honest a picture of his creator’s narrative ingenuity in the final pages, when, describing for the culprit’s benefit the details of the crime, he notes that a certain piece of sleight-of-hand has been performed “a million times before”.

J K Rowling. Photograph: Getty Images

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.