She’s probably the world’s most successful children’s author, so J.K. Rowling’s writing talent isn’t in question. But how does her gift for storytelling transfer to adult crime fiction?
05/03/19If you’d asked me years ago whether I thought J.K. Rowling would be able to write good murder mysteries, I think I’d have expressed some doubts. Although, as an adult, I did enjoy the first few Harry Potter books, as the series progressed and the creatures, characters and stories became increasingly fantastic and elaborate they lost their appeal. So, when Robert Galbraith’s ‘Strike’ series appeared I was a bit wary.
I’ve read that Rowling decided to write under the pen name Robert Galbraith to see if she could hack adult crime fiction without every word being put under the press spotlight. The first book – The Cuckoo’s Calling – had good reviews but sales weren’t huge. Then the Sunday Times worked out that Galbraith was Rowling and suddenly things took off.
The Cuckoo’s Calling
I borrowed the book when it arrived in our library and found it a great read. The hero, Cormoran Strike, is an army veteran who has set up as a private detective in London. Investigating the supposed suicide of the rather improbably named Lula Landry (a successful model), he recruits a temporary secretary called Robin Ellacott to help in the office. Soon Robin is carrying her fair share of the investigative workload and the pair work together to track down the villain.
The character names in these stories do hint at the Rowling connection. After all, the author who came up with Quaffle, Quidditch and Muggle probably thinks that Cormoran and Lula are totally normal, everyday names! As I read The Cuckoo’s Calling, I kept seeing Cormoran as a mis-print that should have been Cormorant. But on checking, I discovered Cormoran was a Cornish giant who, in folklore, is associated with the creation of St. Michael’s Mount. (I suspect I should have known this!) And apparently Lula was a ‘top 50 name in the 1880s’. So, there you have it. The names in the book might be unusual but they aren’t made-up!
A series of four
Anyway, what about the stories? Well I’ve enjoyed all four of the Strike books. After The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) came The Silkworm (2014) which was about an investigation into the gruesome death of a novelist who had plenty of enemies. This was followed by Career of Evil (2015), where the crime is a little closer to home and involves Strike and Robin; and the latest, Lethal White (2018) is about blackmail and death in Parliament.
I don’t suppose critics would count these books as great literature but the plots are good and draw you in before you know it. And it really isn’t long before you want to know ‘whodunnit’ and why.
There are other things that make these books enjoyable. Strike is a war veteran who lost half his leg in an IED explosion in Afghanistan. The disability isn’t glossed over and sometimes it hampers the progress of the investigation. Details are given matter-of-factly but with sensitivity, and the management of his injury is an intrinsic part of every investigation. Also woven through the stories are details of Strike’s struggles to hold down a relationship (and manage a particularly tricky and persistent ex-girlfriend), along with Robin Ellacott’s efforts to keep her boyfriend, Matthew, happy. All this leads you to care about the protagonists almost as much as the plot.
In fact, the relationship between Strike and Robin isn’t a slow-burn, it’s almost a no-burn. As a reader you can be convinced they should be more than business partners but neither of them wants to admit this, so nothing is resolved. Anyone who likes a happy ending will keep being pulled back to find out what happens as the series progresses.
The detail of the cases is interesting too. Strike and Robin are a team of just two, without the resources of a police department to back them up. In old fashioned slang they are, in fact, ‘gumshoes’ in the mould of Philip Marlowe or Spenser, which means they have to do their own legwork. Yes, they can tap into their police contacts and call in favours (sometimes in underhand ways), but basically, they’re on their own, hunting down and/or trading information, and pulling at threads to piece together the clues. The plots build slowly and the reader is involved every step of the way.
The first three books in the Strike series have been televised, with Tom Burke starring as Cormoran Strike and Holliday Grainger as Robin Ellacott. So often TV adaptations can hit the wrong note with their casting, but in my view, with Strike, they’ve got it absolutely right. And although, inevitably, some bits of the books have to be ignored, the stories are recognisable and enjoyable. I’d read all the books before they were on TV but I still enjoyed the TV series very much. (And that isn’t always the case.)
You don’t have to read the Strike books in order but if you haven’t tried any of them and decide to do so, start at the beginning. As the books progress the characters build slowly, and I think they’re an important part of the whole.
Oundle Library’s Crime Fiction Book Group is free to attend and lots of fun! We don’t have a set reading list. Instead, we agree a ‘theme’ for the month and choose the books and authors we want to read within that. We meet at Oundle Library on the third Friday of each month @ 2.30pm. Why not join us? You’ll be very welcome.
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