Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

Young Man Is Late to Party: Gushing About Murder

Jim Hepplewhite is The Matador Review’s in-house reviewer. 

In a previous life, Jim was a music blogger.
In this life, he's a freelance editor. He can be reached on Twitter and Instagram.

I attended a midnight launch in August for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One & Two. I wasn't there for Harry Potter

In the course of reading too much, I came across J.K. Rowling's pseudonymous detective novels. The genesis is cool: After The Casual Vacancy, Ms. Rowling wrote The Cuckoo's Calling under the name Robert Galbraith, presumably to get out from her shadow. The Cuckoo's Calling was released by Mulholland Books, to rave reviews from the crime/mystery community and a fraction of J.K. Rowling's usual sales. Ms. Rowling waited a couple months to let critical opinion dissect her work without her name attached to it, then leaked her identity.

The consensus: Ms. Rowling succeeded wildly.

I read The Cuckoo's Calling and the sequel, The Silkworm, in the span of maybe 10 days, all the while trying to dissect why I like the books so much.

The detective, Cormoran Strike, is sharp retooling of Raymond Chandler's famous outline from his landmark essay "The Simple Art Of Murder." (The outline, which is on the final page of Mr. Chandler's essay, is below.) 

Mr. Strike is the bastard son of a rockstar, and to escape the family name, he served in Afghanistan. Since returning from the war minus part of a leg, he's homeless and scams showering facilities from a London university rather than ask his father for help. 

Strike ticks all Chandler's boxes (a common man, a complete man, an unusual man, a proud man, a lonely man), but following the formula for a detective isn't enough. I've read actively bad detective novels where the formula was followed to the letter. What separates Cormoran Strike?

Three things:
First. Ms. Rowling's execution. She's a good author. She obeys and enjoys the genre, while also being real good at it.

Second. Marketing. I already like Harry Potter, and the critical consensus for her new series prejudices me in Ms. Rowling's favor yet again.


The third one, though, goes with both. Raymond Chandler (one of American detective fiction's two alcoholic fathers) wrote that Dashiell Hammett (the other alcoholic, this man both a man of conscience and a violent drunk who did not defend himself when Elise de Viane named him as her rapist) was so good not only because of his talent, but the fact that unlike many previous mystery writers, he had known poverty firsthand and wrote artfully about murderers who were themselves poor.

Up until Hammett, murder mysteries were bloodless, tidy affairs that centered around a series of clues and genteel persons of interest. Hammett, however, wrote murders by people who might actually commit them with their own hands and in language that wasn't arcane.

Since Chandler, who stood on Hammett's shoulders, traditional American detective fiction is about crimes that must be investigated through multiple sectors of society, with pithy, precise commentary about injustice. Enter Ms. Rowling, or should I say, Mr. Galbraith, stage right.

It's always fun to gossip about the lives of the unattainable glitterati, so The Cuckoo's Calling is about a supermodel's (Lula Landry's) apparent suicide. Throw in tabloid attention, destitute friends from rehab, Landry's adoption into a wealthy British family as a young girl and the stage is set. It's my opinion Ms. Rowling succeeded for the same reasons Hammett did, because she's a great writer, but she also knew poverty before her work made her internationally successful. I imagine it's this life experience that draws me into Strike's life.

Book two, The Silkworm, concerns a the murder of a man who wrote a poison pen novel. Between the nature of the case (the mediocre writer died in a manner that is prefigured by the grotesque manuscript) and the persons of interest (half the London publishing industry), I imagine Ms. Rowling delightedly wrote each carefully misdirected word.

You figured out by now I stepped into Unabridged Books that night to buy book three, Career Of Evil, not the script to the Harry Potter play. Plenty of authors would kill to be good in one genre, but Ms. Rowling is rare. Between Harry Potter and Cormoran Strike, she's sincerely acclaimed by her peers in not one genre, but two.

Read either novel with confidence, though the murder scene in The Silkworm is especially grisly.