I have a question for the Harry Potter fans of the world.
I’m not talking about the millions of people around the world who are pretty sure they saw all eight movies. I want to aim this question squarely at the people who devoured the increasingly large books, maybe even waiting years between installments, and the ones who know that the real story of the Boy Who Lived is still found in the pages that smell impossibly good.
Why aren’t you obsessed with Cormoran Strike?
In less than a year and a half, J.K. Rowling has published two books about the one-legged private detective, under the name Robert Galbraith, beginning with “The Cuckoo’s Calling” in April of 2013. Her second Strike book, “The Silkworm,” hit shelves not even a year after a single tweet led to the unraveling of the pseudonym, a shockingly short period of time for Potter fans who had waited up to three years between installments.
You might expect two new books from the world’s wealthiest author in a commercial genre would be a no-brainer, but the Strike books haven’t become the sensation you might expect. Both books are fantastic reads and have sold well enough, but there doesn’t seem to be the kind of buzz you’d expect given all of the ingredients, which is confusing.
Because while Rowling isn’t writing more Harry Potter books, for fans of her most famous creation, she’s doing the next best thing.
Since every detective series needs a typically downtrodden hero, Rowling gives us Cormoran Strike, the one-legged army vet and out-of-work private eye. While Strike fits the mold of the serial detective many respect, there are two aspects of his character that twist the archetype and make him a unique character for Rowling to explore. Strike is the illegitimate son of rock legend Jonny Rokeby, a detail that would seem arbitrary if it didn’t make the detective’s past so interesting or tie in so well with some of the biggest ideas behind Rowling’s first two Galbraith books.
Though Strike’s troubled background helps differentiate him from the other cookie-cutter literary detectives out there, what really makes Galbraith’s protagonist different is that he shares the title with his assistant. Robin Ellacott, the first character we meet once past the prologue, is a 25-year-old temp, mistakenly assigned to the near-destitute Strike. She meets her boss at his lowest — fresh off a breakup with possibly the world’s most beautiful woman, Charlotte — and over the course of the first book, we see Robin realize her own potential as a detective.
Everyone knows Rowling can create compelling characters, but the mystery genre takes a deftly honed understanding of structure to fool readers. Beyond that, a mystery series runs the risk of repeating itself because of that all-important formula.
Having read both “The Cuckoo’s Calling” and “The Silkworm,” it’s clear that not only does Rowling already have a brilliant understanding of what makes great mysteries compulsive reads, she has written two yarns that feel inherently different from each other. That’s not just because the trail of clues is different.
Coming off the “Harry Potter” series, it was clear almost immediately that Rowling had a lot to say that she couldn’t fit into her boy wizard books as explicitly as she might like. Her first novel post-Potter, “The Casual Vacancy,” tackled a world of modern social issues, but for her Galbraith mysteries, Rowling got specific and examined two ideas closely associated with her public life.
“The Cuckoo’s Calling” ostensibly examines the suspicious death of a supermodel, officially ruled a suicide, and “The Silkworm” is about the death of an author, whose latest manuscript skewers many in his prominent publishing personalities. Just beneath the surface whodunit is what the reader could imagine as a look into Rowling’s life, or at least her opinion of the spheres she inhabits. Both books take cynical views of celebrity and the publishing industries and give perhaps the clearest view of the person behind the words.
The Gang Is Back
Now, why should Harry Potter fans care about any of this? Aside from the fact that the author who’s responsible for many of our loves of reading is producing great work again at a quick pace, Rowling is back to writing within the framework of a series. That might not seem like a big deal, but once you finish “The Cuckoo’s Calling” and begin “The Silkworm,” it becomes clearer why this matters.
Rowling has a gift for character that continues strongly in her Galbraith books. You care about Strike and Robin by the end of the first installment, and you’re eager to know where they are in their lives, what they’re doing and thinking about. It becomes as important as the mystery, and in some cases more so, just like it did with Harry, Ron and Hermione.
Convinced? Good. Now get to the bookstore.