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

YouTube screengrab
Show Hide image

The Polish Christmas advert that trumped John Lewis melts hearts in regretful Brexit Britain

An advert that encourages us to hope for “more” in our relationship with our European neighbours.

John Lewis had a trampolining dog, H&M had Wes Anderson, Sainsbury’s had a singing James Corden. But for all their big-budget sheen and tie-in products, none have mustered as much genuine emotion as this commercial for a Polish auction site, Allegro. Starring an elderly Polish man learning English for the first time, the video has rocked up almost 7 million views since it went online at the end of last month.

We watch Robert labelling all his household possessions (including his dog), reading his vocabulary book and listening to CDs in all manner of locations (his desk, the bus, even the bath) in his attempt to learn English. Why? Well, as the advert reveals in its final moments, it’s all for love: Robert can’t wait to speak English to his granddaughter (and daughter-in-law) when he visits them in the UK this Christmas.

The advert is like a mix of Edeker’s 2015 Christmas advert, and John Lewis’s “Man on the Moon” and “The Long Wait” films – with a dash of Love, Actually (language barriers and doorstep reunions) – so it ticks all the boxes of a Christmas hit. Lonely old person? Check. An agonising wait? Check. Cute pet, adorable tiny child, airport scene? Check, check, check. All topped off with some tear-filled hugs? Checkmate.

It’s funny too: many commenters thought the final twist might be Robert using some of his less child-appropriate vocabulary (“I’m going to fucking kill you!”) when meeting his granddaughter for the first time.

But there’s also a subtly anti-Brexit message here, as love trumps borders. A spokesperson for Allegro told Buzzfeed, “Many Polish people share the same experience” as this “grandfather who overcomes obstacles to reunite with his loved ones living abroad.”

“Nearly one million Poles have decided to leave the country in search for a job, mainly heading for the United Kingdom. Despite the relatively close distance between the countries, family ties tend to weaken. Therefore, Christmas for many is a difficult time in which we yearn for more.”

An advert that encourages us to hope for “more” in our relationship with our European neighbours? Wouldn’t that be the greatest gift of all? Well, much better than a trampoline, anyway. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.