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.

J K Rowling. Photograph: Getty Images

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”.