What do you do if you’re one of the most famous authors on the planet, but want to try something different, and for people to judge your writing purely on its merits? You write under a pseudonym, that’s what – and that’s exactly what JK Rowling did when she quietly released her first crime novel under the name of Robert Galbraith. It didn’t take long for the secret to be revealed, at which point sales went through the roof as expected, but the question remains – can Rowling come out from under Harry Potter’s shadow and cut it in the crime genre? The answer is that yes, she certainly can.
Every great crime series needs a great detective, and Rowling has got that covered in the bizarrely named Cormoran Strike – ex-military police, illegitimate son of a famous rockstar, physically and emotionally scarred, and about as un-glamorous as it’s possible to be. Clearly cut from the same cloth as many of the great characters from the genre’s past, he feels complex and troubled without being too dark and gritty, and while he has a suitably brilliant mind for his work, there’s still a sense that he has to work hard at what he does. When the story begins he’s almost down and out, caught up in the death throes of a stormy relationship and with barely a client to his name, when two things provide crucial lifelines – a rich client with a link to his own past, and a new, unwanted secretary.
The story revolves around the death of a famous model, treated by the police as a suicide but which her brother insists was murder despite little in the way of evidence. At first unwilling to take the case, Strike grudgingly takes it on only to find that what seemed at first to be wishful thinking turns out to be very real, twisted and dangerous. With the surprisingly (as far as he’s concerned) useful assistance of his new secretary, Strike digs deeper and deeper into the model’s history and family life, uncovering a knotted web of motive and opportunity, all the while trying to get his personal life back on track and reconcile himself with what his life has become.
It’s typical Rowling really, taking something familiar – in this case a standard crime novel structure – and producing something really enjoyable through clever, engaging storytelling. It’s well written, carefully and cleverly plotted, paced really well, and utterly addictive. There’s a great real-world feel to the book, with vivid descriptions of London, likeable and relatable characters, and a plot that taps nicely into the modern celebrity culture. It’s certainly not trying to be revolutionary, instead concentrating on being a gripping, hugely entertaining read – exactly what this sort of book should be.