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15 January 2024

JK Rowling, Britain’s gloriously nasty novelist

Her electric Robert Galbraith novels portray a Britain populated by paedophiles, domestic abusers, rapists and terrorists.

By Nick Hilton

It isn’t long into The Silkworm – JK Rowling’s 2014 crime novel published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith – before the subject of Jacobean revenge tragedies arises. A witness tells Rowling’s detective, Cormoran Strike, about a murder suspect who also happens to be a well-known fiction author. The gore of those 17th-century plays – with their “their sadism and their lust for vengeance… rape and cannibalism, poisoned skeletons dressed up as women” – was his “obsession”.

You could say the same about Rowling herself. Now that the dust has settled on the best-selling Harry Potter series – which themselves feature child abuse, murder and torture, all before they’ve graduated to the Young Adult section of the library – Rowling has transitioned from national treasure to liberal pariah, alienating her largely left-wing millennial fanbase with gender-critical politics. In tandem, the nastiness of her fiction – previously largely sublimated – has bubbled up to the surface like lava. Her most recent books, which grace window displays in Waterstones, might just make her Britain’s nastiest novelist.

As Galbraith – who was described, on the original dust jackets, as ex-Royal Military Police – Rowling has been unleashed. Her talent for intricate world-building, so evident in Harry Potter, has merged with a tendency towards sickening violence and penetrating satire. On the dark streets of Rowling’s London, criminals and perverts lurk on every corner, disguising themselves as innocent or vulnerable. Her victims are doused in acid, asphyxiated, thrown from balconies, and – the final indignity – preyed upon by voyeuristic tabloid journalists. What’s worse is that they deserve it.

Rowling’s career as a purveyor of vicious social derision began on the first page of the first Harry Potter book. Harry’s uncle, Mr Dursley, is described as “a big, beefy man with hardly any neck”, while Mrs Dursley has “nearly twice the usual amount of neck”. Both are snooty and mean: more concerned with the upkeep of their lawn than the well-being of their nephew. Harry was instantly recognisable as a protagonist in the mould of Great Expectations’ Pip or Jane Eyre: orphans, beset by those who ought to provide succour. But for adult readers, the Dursleys were clearly a piercing satire of Daily Mail-reading middle-class mediocrity, of suburban small-mindedness. The couple and their equally grotesque son Dudley (who also has “not much neck… on his thick, fat head”), are status-obsessed, grasping bigots, thank you very much.

Sixteen years later, a mysterious crime novel by an unknown writer called Robert Galbraith appeared on the shelves of selected bookshops. The Cuckoo’s Calling was already a modest success when Rowling was unmasked as its author, following a leak to the Sunday Times. There was little astonishment that she had progressed from children’s fiction to mystery novels: the first four Potter novels are, essentially, whodunnits. What was more surprising was their unremitting grimness. Her detectives – the one-legged veteran, Cormoran Strike, and his younger female partner, Robin Ellacott – are submerged in the drug- and sex-fuelled world of the vapid super-rich. The target of Rowling’s satire had moved, alongside her social position, from middle England to Mayfair.

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Galbraith’s Britain – the series begins in 2010 and has so far made its way to the Brexit vote – is a world in which murder might be considered one of the more civilised activities. “[S]omething more,” wrote Thomas De Quincey, in his essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”, “goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed.” Rowling’s murderers might be unpleasant, stupid or cruel, but they are often overshadowed by the true degenerates of her novels. This is a landscape populated by paedophiles and domestic abusers, rapists and far-right terrorists: none of whom, I might add, actually commit the murders. The act of killing, in comparison, is almost incidentally reprehensible, merely slipped into the deck of depravity like a stray Joker.

The early villains of the Cormoran Strike series are stalkers, blackmailers and journalists. In the first book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, a poison pen writer pursues Strike in colourful language (a literary device Rowling employs frequently across the series). “You think i wont f***ing hurt you but your wrong you c**t,” the correspondent writes. “I am going to pull your f***ing dick off and stuff it down yor throat [sic].” In the series’ second book, The Silkworm, Dominic Culpepper, a tabloid journalist, has a “strange asymmetry, as though somebody had given his face a counterclockwise twist”. Culpepper, a “walking distillation” of “prurience and presumptions”, is employed by the News of the World. “Instructing people to hack phones is illegal as well, I’ve heard,” Strike tells him, with a raised eyebrow. Rowling was a core participant to the Leveson inquiry, having been a victim of the News of the World’s hacking practices.

As Rowling became more successful as a children’s author, the Potter books became longer and more idiosyncratic, as though her editors feared any intervention might disrupt the flow of cash into their bank accounts. And while The Cuckoo’s Calling was a relatively modest 464 pages, and The Silkworm 454, her crime series’ three most recent instalments – Troubled BloodThe Ink Black Heart and The Running Grave – all clock in at almost, or just over, 1,000 pages. With seven books published in the series in the past decade, she is still lagging behind Agatha Christie’s famous rate of a book per year, but word for word she’s probably raced ahead of the Queen of Crime with the sheer size of her output.

In fact, the Strike novels are electric – shocking and exciting in a way good crime fiction should be – precisely because Rowling eschews the clinical puzzle style of Christie or Conan Doyle. She prefers something labyrinthine, where the mystery is the thread that holds a multi-linear saga together. The professional and romantic partnership between Robin and Strike (one of the most exhaustingly slow-burning romances committed to literature) is the only relief from this tangled web of bad people doing bad things to other bad people. Robert Galbraith’s world is dizzyingly immersive. The novels – which read like the obsessive, compulsive fan fiction of the Wattpad generation – are an alternative universe, where your most base, most judgemental thoughts are rendered in black and white.

Rowling’s darkest literary impulses run wild in the last two epics of the Strike series. The Ink Black Heart is a formally experimental work set among internet trolls and composed, in large part, of transcribed conversations between the moderators of a video game popular with self-described “edgelords”, online provocateurs who revel in bigotry and malice. Vast swathes of the novel (almost every other chapter) are written as dialogue-only conversations between anonymised accounts. The users exist within the real-world narrative too, but the plot only slowly unveils their true identities, a series of micro-mysteries within the novel’s broader structure. It is the genre fiction parallel to the embedded emails and chatspeak that has typified the output of literary authors, such as Sally Rooney, Ben Lerner, Elif Batuman and Jarett Kobek.

Rowling juxtaposes the literary with the anti-literary. Chapter 31 of The Ink Black Heart, for example, opens with an epigraph from Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Rat”. The first lines of Rowling’s own prose read:

<Moderator Channel>
<10 April 2015 23.29>
<Anomie, Vilepechora,
Paperwhite, Fiendy1,
Hartella, Worm28>

<A new private channel has opened>
<10 April 2015 23.29>
<Morehouse invites Anomie>

<A new private channel has opened>
<10 April 2015 23.29>
<LordDrek invites Vilepechora>

To the uninitiated, it might prove almost unreadable. But the inhabitants of this world are the reprobates of the digital swamp. These are the sort of people who use the hashtag “#GreedieFedwell” to abuse a character, Edie Ledwell, who has an eating disorder. They are the sort of blokes who talk about “racial purity” and create YouTube videos baking Holocaust-themed cookies. It is as vividly recognisable a portrait of this subculture as has ever been published – let alone in a book sold in Sainsbury’s.

As Galbraith, Rowling takes aim at all sections of the political spectrum. Much of The Ink Black Heart is centred around a performatively woke blog called “the Pen of Justice”, which has publicly accused the novel’s murder victim of racism and transphobia. Naturally, the anonymous author of this blog turns out to be a paedophile. “That’s how you like them, right?” asks Strike, confronting the man he’s just unmasked as both a social justice warrior and a rapist of underage girls. “Easier to manipulate if they’ve got fuck all self-esteem and no family to drag you into court.”

The malice of Rowling’s novels springs not just from its ugly villains, but the narrative cruelty directed at so many of her less abhorrent, if still sinister, characters. Almost as little sympathy is spared for Kea Niven, a young woman who blogs about her chronic illnesses. “There was a shadow of a dare in her behaviour,” Strike thinks to himself when they meet, as the plausibility of her physical symptoms is consistently undermined. This is not the first time that Rowling has picked at the persistent accusation that millennials confect oppressions and traumas. The series’ third novel, Career of Evil, features a young, female character, Kelsey, who desperately wants to be an amputee. As she writes to Strike:

“I will only be truly me and truly complete when my leg is gone. Nobody gets that it isn’t and never will be part of me. My need to be an amputee is very hard for my family to accept, they think it is all in my mind.”

The Running Grave, the seventh and most recent in the series, is more linear, less radical, but shot through with extra acidic bile. The novel, set within a cult based on the North Norfolk coast, is teeming with child murder, sexual abuse and paedophilia. The word “sodomise”, in its many tenses, is used 12 times; on eight occasions “c**t” is deployed against a character. But most graphic of all are the grubby clues unearthed over the course of the investigation: the mystery hangs on the existence of a set of eight Polaroids.

The first shows a “dark, naked, chubby girl”. The second shows a female character “being penetrated from behind”. In another Polaroid, an intellectually disabled character is photographed “being sodomised” (“Robin,” Rowling writes, “could almost see the grimace of pain on the moon face of the teenager”). Another shows “a dark girl being penetrated” by an older man, with “a deep graze on her left knee”. I could go on; Rowling does not spare the reader’s sensitivities. Her specificity is relentless.

But Rowling’s most grotesque caricature is not a child murderer, but a social climber. Bijou (“‘Her name’s Bijou?’ said Robin incredulously”) is a high-flying lawyer who sets her sights on the celebrity detective at a party. She is depicted as obsessionally interested in procreating with her married senior (“She took a used condom out of the bin,” Robin is informed, “while she was having an affair with that married QC, and inserted it inside herself”) and generally conducts herself like a parody of men’s rights activists’ fears about women. Perhaps the most scorn, however, is reserved for her breasts. “She’d looked better than she felt,” Strikes’ inner monologue observes after their one-night stand. “Her impressive breasts, as he’d discovered in the bedroom, were fake.”

In her children’s fiction and her crime books, Rowling’s writing tends towards exaggerated moral binaries: in sharp contrast to the Bijous and the Culpeppers of the novels, Strike’s detective partner, Robin Ellacott combines the qualities Rowling uses to typify her goodies: an unshowy intelligence, selfless bravery, a regional accent/absence of inherited wealth, and an unprepossessing, yet arresting, beauty. In literary archetypes, she comes dangerously close to the pervasive trope of female infallibility. So, when Robin becomes the conduit for cruelty, it is even more striking. “He was,” Rowling writes, as Robin visits a prisoner at HMP Bedford in The Running Grave, “without exception, the most pathetic example of humanity Robin had ever laid eyes on.” She goes on: “Robin had the macabre thought that she was looking at a man whose proper setting was a coffin, an impression reinforced by the gust of rotten breath that reached her as he sat down.” It’s the sort of description Rowling usually reserves for the alt-right and tawdry tabloid hacks.

Rowling’s propensity for spite is exhilarating, particularly as being celebrated for sheer nastiness is a privilege so often reserved for male authors: the violence of Cormac McCarthy, the vulgarity of Martin Amis, the perversity of Michel Houellebecq. Though more generic, the Galbraith novels are no less morally transgressive, dispensing with the search for justice and fairness that characterises so much detective fiction.

Early in The Running Grave, Strike and Robin provide surveillance on two odd, unsettling brothers (one of whom has special needs) who are stalking a young actress. “Did I tell you one of them’s been done for stalking and the other one for flashing?” Strike tells his partner. “A good reminder to all of us that oddballs aren’t necessarily harmless.” It’s a message that Rowling emphasises at the novel’s denouement. In the epilogue, the client who hired Strike and Robin asks how the cult managed to get away with myriad abuses for so long: “‘Live and let live,’ isn’t it?” Strike replies. The moral of this thousand-page novel is one that runs counter to most of the modern inclusivity agenda: if people are weird, they might well be dangerous. At the very least, we should be suspicious of anyone strange or unusual. It seems Mr and Mrs Dursley, who “just didn’t hold with such nonsense”, were right all along.

The Strike novels understandably take a far more cynical, bitter world-view than Rowling’s children’s fiction. As her work has shifted, a generation of Potter enthusiasts have been increasingly disillusioned by Rowling’s evolution from saint-like Labour Party-supporting children’s author to polemical political activist, seemingly obsessive about the tabloid media, Scottish nationalism and, most provocatively for her millennial readers, gender-critical feminism. It is a disillusionment that Rowling shares, but for all her books’ world-weary criticism of a political world polarised by social media, they show little self-awareness. In her novels, Rowling skewers the far right – meanwhile, she has liked a post from a far-right account on Twitter. She condemns vicious keyboard warriors and hysterical reactionaries in her books but engages in similar behaviour herself online. In another world, JK Rowling could be a character in a book by Robert Galbraith: brittle, insecure, cruel.

When she assumed the Galbraith pseudonym a decade ago, Rowling was putting on a mask. The mask of anonymity, the mask of detachment, the mask of adulthood. But on another level, she was taking off a mask – and showing herself in full, nasty glory for the first time.

[See also: Ricky Gervais is turning into David Brent]

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