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Mark Lawson: J K Rowling and the chamber of secret names

Cuckoo’s Calling sold just a few hundred copies when thought to be by “Robert Galbraith”, then millions when its true author was revealed. But should the mask have stayed on longer?

Woman in the crime mask: J K Rowling, AKA Robert Galbraith
Woman in the crime mask: J K Rowling, AKA Robert Galbraith

Although Agatha Christie and Philip Roth may seem an improbable pairing, both authors dramatised the experience of literary celebrity through an alter ego: Christie’s fictional crime writer Ariadne Oliver and Roth’s invented Jewish-American author Nathan Zuckerman tantalise readers with an apparent dance of self-revelation that may in reality be steps of disguise. Other writers who have suffered serious fame have reacted in a similar way: “Mailer”, the third-person reference somehow more egotistical than “I”, is a frequent protagonist in the books of Norman Mailer, while John Updike had Henry Bech, an American author who wins the Nobel Prize in Literature, in presumably therapeutic compensation for Updike’s own failure to do so.

This literary subgenre seemed threatened by the fact that destabilising stardom is a decreasing risk for authors. But two current writers – Dan Brown and J K Rowling – have achieved a level of renown far beyond Byron’s reported shock at waking up to find himself famous; and this giddy prominence has filtered into their books. Brown’s take on fame is oblique: one of the loudest false chimes in his latest novel, Inferno, is that its hero, Robert Langdon, has a lifestyle (private jets, etc) and public name-recognition that fit a super-selling thriller writer rather better than they do a Harvard academic.

Rowling has responded more directly to the predicament of being a writer so well known that her intervention in the Scottish independence debate (urging a No vote and giving the negative campaign a million quid to encourage others) was more widely publicised than anything said on the subject by Cameron, Salmond or Obama.

The subject matter of The Silkworm, her second crime novel under the pseudonym “Robert Galbraith”, is the hunting of an author. Cormoran Strike – the one-legged private eye first met in The Cuckoo’s Calling, which sold a few hundred copies when thought to be by Robert Galbraith, then millions when its true author was revealed – is hired to find Owen Quine. This British horror-crime writer has vanished with the manuscript of a fiction called Bombyx Mori, an exposé of the literary world that includes defamatory versions of famous writers including Michael Fancourt, whose wife committed suicide after a parody of her writing in a satirical magazine.

Because Rowling’s first published works were a series of fantasies about adolescent necromancers and a sort of lacrosse played on broomsticks, the extent of autobiography and editorialising in her writing only belatedly became apparent. But, across the seven Harry Potters, her adult novel The Casual Vacancy and the two Galbraiths, personal preoccupations increasingly recur: single parenthood, press intrusion, class and racial prejudice.

Phone-hacking and fatherless children get another airing in The Silkworm and so there is an inevitable temptation to suspect that the viperous writers, slippery agents, duplicitous publishers and cruel critics who populate the book also represent heart-felt memories or observations. But Rowling is on record as saying that she had hoped her crime mask would stay in place for longer than it did. And I think it’s clear that The Silkworm was intended to be an even more elaborate tease than it now is.

Internal references (the News of the World still being published, Prince William’s engagement to Catherine Middleton) place the story in late 2010, an unusual time lag for contemporary crime fiction, which may lead some literary sleuths to wonder whether Rowling began it before, or possibly alongside, the first Galbraith novel. Strikingly, a major plot line turns on the true authorship of a novel and, if the pseudonymous ruse had endured, readers wondering whether Quine and Fancourt were caricatures of actual celebrated authors would have been dumbly unaware that the best-known British novelist of the age herself was hiding between the lines.

It’s a shame that the fun was spoiled. Even so, reading a Gal­braith while knowing that it’s a Rowling is still a pleasure. Surely, whatever happens in September’s referendum, her first specifically Scottish novel, under one name or another, cannot be far away.

 

Going it alone

Solo shows are popular with theatre accountants because only one actor has to be paid, and loved by performers because there is zero risk of being upstaged. Two recent productions, though, have confirmed that they can be a perfect form for audiences as well. Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of the American civil rights lawyer in David W Rintels’s Clarence Darrow and Fiona Shaw’s depiction of the mother of Christ in Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary will surely be contenders for this year’s theatre awards. Though working in huge theatres – the Old Vic and the Barbican – Spacey and Shaw made every phrase resonate, conjuring up not just the title character but dozens of others in the narrative. One-person performances can be the speech equivalent of an operatic aria: the ultimate test of vocal dexterity and stage presence. These two actors passed with singular success.