A Rowling In the Nest

by Arthur B

Robert Galbraith has a lot of J.K. Rowling's flaws, but has shed a lot of her bad habits.
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I admit it: I was one of the rubberneckers. Failing to notice the existence of Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling until the revelation that Galbraith was none other than J.K. Rowling in Army-themed drag, my immediate response was to hop on my Kindle and buy the thing. (It's rather a Pavlovian response with us Kindle users actually: become momentarily interested in a book, press a button, obtain the book. Devilishly convenient.) I wasn't sure what I was expecting, but what I got was exciting and tense for all the right reasons and uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons.

First, though, the premise: Cormoran Strike is a London-based private detective, having entered the field as a solo entrepreneur following his exit from the Army. Strike has a chequered past - not least because he's the illegitimate, only reluctantly acknowledged son of a world-famous rock star (he's only met his dad twice, and seems to prefer it that way) and one of the most notorious "supergroupies" of the 1970s, whose overdose under suspicious circumstances kindled Strike's latent sleuthing abilities. Strike overcame a tumultuous early life and managed to study in Oxford briefly, before dropping out and embarking on a military career which wouid see him honing his investigative skills in his capacity as an officer in the military police. Leaving the forces after an incident in Afghanistan which lost him his leg, he returned to London with the intent of finally marrying his fiancée Charlotte and starting up his own PI business.

As the novel opens, Strike and Charlotte have irrevocably split up, prompting Strike to grab a camp bed and sleep in his office - he can't afford to rent his own place. Nor can he really afford Robin Ellacott, the temporary secretary sent to him by an agency he'd been meaning to terminate his contract with. Still, things perk up when he is hired by well-heeled attorney John Bristow to investigate the death of Lula Landry, Bristow's adoptive sister. As a world-famous supermodel, Lula's death three months ago in a fall from the balcony of her luxurious Mayfair flat was not only extensively investigated by the police but also intensely scrutinised by the tabloid press and legions of online conspiracy theorists, so Strike doesn't hold out much hope of doing anything more than confirming the official line that it was suicide. Soon enough, he starts believing differently, but it will take both him and Robin working their way into the confidences of Lula's friends and acquaintances (which span all social strata) in order to prove that.

I'll deal with the discomfort first. A major plot point in the story is that Lula was mixed race, and before she died was undertaking her own investigation - a search for her biological family. Fair enough, except Rowling seems to have this weird thing where she only includes in the story those ethnicities demanded by the premise: Strike seems to occupy a world where all the relevant people are either white (skewing towards upper and established middle class) or black (skewing towards working class folks and self-made successes), and any other ethnicities are kept firmly in the background (if mentioned at all). Moreover, the depiction of the black characters in the book seems to be tailored to confirm the prejudices of middle-class white people (as, indeed, are the white characters that white middle-class readers are unlikely to identify with - celebrities, the very rich, the working class, etc.). Not gruesome overtly racist sorts, mind, more the sorts who would think it absolutely abhorrent to deliberately write someone off simply because of their background, but at the same time still tend to expect black people to mostly work in servant's roles such as "security guard" or "driver" and who expect most of them to speak heavily accented English, and who expect working-class white people to barely speak English at all, and who expect celebrities and very rich people to be incredibly self-absorbed and quietly dysfunctional, and so on.

There's two distinct traditions in classic crime fiction when it comes to societal convention: there's the hardboiled noirish stuff which tries to force you to stare down ugly unspoken truths about society, and where the detective's investigations usually disrupt the status quo by revealing unpalatable secrets, of which Dashiel Hammett and Ray Chandler were two of the most important originators, and on the other hand there's the politer sort of crime fiction which is more about the detective protecting the status quo by restoring order and removing dangers from its midst. Although at first glance it looks like Strike might come from the hardboiled PI tradition, in his actions and background and perceptions he's all about telling a middle-class audience what they want to hear, as is Rowling herself. People on benefits really are venal and common and don't talk properly in this universe; black people's accents are exotic enough to be conveyed through eccentric spelling, but well-bred white people don't have accents because white is normal. Gay black fashion designers are, of course, outrageously camp and entertainingly gossipy and vulgar.

This is precisely the sort of intellectual comfort food for the English middle class Michael Moorcock warned us about in Epic Pooh, guys. But then again, could we really expect any different from an author whose most famous work to date absolutely and 100% fits into the tradition of pollyanna children's fantasy identified by Moorcock? Rowling's partisans have regularly held her up as some sort of social justice champion for creating a fictional universe where a range of ethnicities and some (celibate, repenting) gay people are permitted to exist; hopefully, The Cuckoo's Calling will at least convince people that she was never that good of a minority warrior and was never really trying to be one.

That said, this is easily my favourite Rowling book since the first three Harry Potter volumes.

Part of this may well be down to the fact that this is an exercise in genre fiction in which Rowling is cleaving to the accepted formula of the genre she is working in. The early Potter books were similar exercises in formula, and they were exciting and had great pacing and kept me turning the pages right to the end. The Prisoner of Azkaban was the best, in my view, precisely because Rowling had become comfortable enough with the formula to mess around with it in interesting ways. But from that point on, the formula disintegrated along with the page count limit, and Rowling allowed herself to get sloppy and undisciplined. Writing straight down the line genre fiction again seems like a great way for her to get that discipline back.

Not only does this prove to be the case, but The Cuckoo's Calling also reminded me of something which in recent years it's been very easy to forget - namely, that Rowling can spin a damn good mystery when she puts her mind to it. Here, the structure and expectations of the classic whodunnit genre really help her - she's clearly done her research, the different clues Strike uncovers are enough to let an attentive reader work out most of the mystery whilst keeping a few details a genuine surprise, and throughout the book I was absolutely gripped and eager to see what happened next. Gratifying, the murder itself proves to be quite simple, with a lot of the complications and mysteries arriving simply from the fact that people aren't actually as good witnesses as they think they are. Moreover, I think the book would also be one of those rare mysteries which are worth rereading once you know the outcome just to see how that puts a different cast on proceedings.

Part of this might be down to Rowling following the age-old advice of "write what you know" - in this case, Rowling has been able to leverage her privileged access to celebrity culture and experience of tabloid scrutiny to her advantage - she is even able to cleverly work in a plot point revolving around Lula's response to the News of the World phone hacking fiasco which Rowling herself was a victim of. In particular, Rowling's depiction of the media response to Lula's death is exceptionally well-observed, to the point where you almost feel like you remember the media storm in question. (I think the line which hooked me on the novel was "She became a morality tale stiff with Schadenfreude, and so many columnists made allusion to Icarus that Private Eye ran a special column", because it rings so true.)

On top of that, whilst Rowling does resort to a range of stock characters, other major figures seem genuinely interesting and nuanced. Lula feels like a real person even though the reader never sees her alive, and Strike and Robin individually and as a team seem like good company for a series. Robin does all the classic secretarial stuff but rapidly reveals a sharp talent for improvisation and deceit in order to do Strike's research and a little sleuthing of her own, whilst Strike himself seems believably world-weary without coming across as a caricature. You can tell that a romance may well be on the cards in the future - in particular, Robin's fiancé Matthew displays overt disrespect both for her eagerness to work with Stroke and also for the investigative stuff she actually gets up to, and when you feel the need to be overtly hostile to stuff your partner finds cool and meaningful and interesting and crammed with job satisfaction that's a bad fucking sign. At the same time, neither of them are in a place where getting together would carry with it a sense of emotional verisimilitude, and Rowling shows sufficient restraint to keep things professional between the two for the time being, concentrating instead on the fumbling process through which they become colleagues and friends and establish the boundaries and ground rules of their interaction.

Make no mistake: Rowling is not revolutionising crime fiction with this book, nor is she achieving any victories for feminism, racial equality, or LGBT advocacy. She is not the official poet laureate, but in all honesty she might as well be, because she embodies the voice of the self-satisfied status quo perfectly. But damn it all, she gives good sleuth and when her mystery gets rolling she has me absolutely hooked. I'd sincerely hope that the next Robert Galbraith book will avoid patronising minority warfare, but I'd be kidding myself if I pretended I wasn't going to buy it on release anyway. Other readers should judge things accordingly based on how much classism and minority warrior cluelessness they can stand.
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Comments (go to latest)
http://mmmarcusz.livejournal.com/ at 21:06 on 2013-07-21
Was I the only one reminded of Dr Evil's life story when they read Cormoran Strike's? Pretty standard, really.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTJj4wbmAhk
http://mmmarcusz.livejournal.com/ at 21:11 on 2013-07-21
And does the title show the same hazy language as "deathly hallows"? Birds have "calls", not "callings".
Arthur B at 21:17 on 2013-07-21
And does the title show the same hazy language as "deathly hallows"?

Not really, I think it's specifically meant to be wordplay on "call" as in birdsong and "calling" as in vocation; Strike is a sort of metaphorical cuckoo (his father only very reluctantly acknowledged him) and his vocation is in sleuthing, Lula was similarly a metaphorical cuckoo (a mixed race child in a white family) and she found herself compelled to research her biological family.

Of course, calling illegitimate children or adoptees cuckoos is problematic, but that just makes the title distasteful, not nonsensical.
Dan H at 22:19 on 2013-07-21
But from that point on, the formula disintegrated along with the page count limit, and Rowling allowed herself to get sloppy and undisciplined.


I suspect it might be fairer to say that Rowling's *editors* allowed her to get sloppy and undisciplined. I don't want to be a cynic, but I suspect that the second Galbraith book might be significantly worse, simply because the publishers can now rely on the Rowling name to sell whatever the hell they put out.

It's kind of a shame really, because from what I've seen of the whole story, it seems like Rowling really would have been happy to carry on writing anonymously, and since she's already richer than God, she'd probably have been perfectly happy being a midlist genre writer.
Arthur B at 22:26 on 2013-07-21
I suspect it might be fairer to say that Rowling's *editors* allowed her to get sloppy and undisciplined. I don't want to be a cynic, but I suspect that the second Galbraith book might be significantly worse, simply because the publishers can now rely on the Rowling name to sell whatever the hell they put out.

I fear it may be so.

On the other hand, Rowling does seem to have this growing awareness that she doesn't actually get the same feedback when people don't know who she is as when they do, so perhaps she'll either encourage her editors to challenge her more or just get back on the anonymity train in another genre. (I have to wonder how many debut authors in a similar style are going to have to deal with accusations of being Rowling from here on out...)
Arthur B at 22:40 on 2013-07-21
(It also occurs to me that whereas with Potter Rowling seemed to want to jettison the pattern she'd established early on and have a series with deliberately mutated as it went on, here her intent seems to have been to write classic-style formula crime fiction with no pretense of being anything else, so if she sticks to that she might come through alright.)
Fishing in the Mud at 11:57 on 2013-07-22
The Potter project was just enormously bulky from the beginning, and it kept getting more stuff added to it until it collapsed in a heap, so unless Galbraith has a seven-part series planned for this story I wouldn't worry about it falling apart the same way. I don't think Rowling actually is a particularly bad or lazy writer; I think Potter just spun completely out of control to the point where it was unrecoverable.
Dan H at 12:32 on 2013-07-22
@Arthur

here her intent seems to have been to write classic-style formula crime fiction with no pretense of being anything else


Either that, or she'll give an interview in a couple of years in which she claims that she had *no idea* that she was writing crime...

@Fishing in the Mud

I don't think Rowling actually is a particularly bad or lazy writer; I think Potter just spun completely out of control to the point where it was unrecoverable.


I think that's probably very true, on the other hand editing is a lengthy, expensive process and, while it tends to produce better books, publishers aren't always inclined to do it if they don't think it will improve sales.

In a sense, I do feel a little sorry for JKR, because I really think she was hoping to be judged on her own merits, rather than on the strength of her name, and that's sort of gone out the window now.

@mmmarcusz

And does the title show the same hazy language as "deathly hallows"? Birds have "calls", not "callings".


As Arthur points out, I think there was supposed to be some kind of double meaning going on here with "calling" as in "vocation" paralleling "calling" as in "making a noise".

To get into language pedantry for a bit, while it's true that the noun used for birdsong is "call", I'm pretty sure the verb used to describe the process of making that call would be "to call" (or "to sing" of course) of which "calling" would be the continuous. Which I think would make the birdsong-related reading of the title a perfectly legitimate gerund.

I've got to admit that I don't think it's a very *good* title, but then I've not read the book.
Arthur B at 12:44 on 2013-07-22
@Fishing:
The Potter project was just enormously bulky from the beginning, and it kept getting more stuff added to it until it collapsed in a heap, so unless Galbraith has a seven-part series planned for this story I wouldn't worry about it falling apart the same way.

Of course, some crime series do stretch on forever, but on the other hand it's kind of a hallmark of the genre that the scope and structure of the entries in crime series tend not to mutate radically from book 1 to book 96...

@Dan:
In a sense, I do feel a little sorry for JKR, because I really think she was hoping to be judged on her own merits, rather than on the strength of her name, and that's sort of gone out the window now.

True that, on the other hand the book actually did get very nice reviews before she was rumbled but very, very little commercial traction, so we kind of have the best of both world - Rowling proves to herself that she can make it without her name behind her, everyone else gets to find out about a crime novel which seemed destined for midlist obscurity otherwise.

Of course, this may become a curse if the editing goes out of the window. On the other hand, I think (or would at least bloody hope) that crime editors are markedly more aware of the absolute necessity of editing, because everyone looks bad if you put out a mystery where a continuity error means that the murderer couldn't possibly have dunnit. The flipside of having an author with Rowling's dynamite reputation is that if your proofreading fuckup hurts that reputation then there's hell to pay. (Also, Rowling seems keen on making sure her real-world research is accurate this time around, which of course was much less of an issue with the Potters because only the first and last chapters of each of those took place in the real world anyway.)
Fishing in the Mud at 15:16 on 2013-07-22
I really think she was hoping to be judged on her own merits

I don't think she should worry about that. She's famous in the first place for being an author, after all. She earned all of her fame honestly. She's being judged on the merit of already being an author lots of people like, and you could do a lot worse.
Dan H at 21:23 on 2013-07-22
don't think she should worry about that. She's famous in the first place for being an author, after all. She earned all of her fame honestly. She's being judged on the merit of already being an author lots of people like, and you could do a lot worse.


Fair point, I think perhaps what I think I should have said is that she wanted the Robert Galbraith books to be judged on *their* own merits, rather than being judged as "The Books the Harry Potter Lady Wrote After Harry Potter".
About the mild not-really racism of the book:

Rowling seems to have a weird relationship toward middle-class traditional values. On the one hand, she seems to try to criticize them, but these efforts are executed so blatantly that instead of subverting the conservative values, they turn out to reinforce them.

She creates non-white and non-straight characters, sure, but they all seem to be there as a token necessity and their characterization borders on stereotype. This does not stem out of any overt racist or homophobic intent but rather from her incomplete idea of what they should be like. This idea, coming from a straight white person, is just a bit too caricature-like since it's based in her impressions of the various minorites as they are portrayed by popular culture and and framed by the discourse of today's media. (I'm also taking into consideration her other non-HP novel, The Casual Vacancy, with the sole token lesbian character.)

So as you point out, JKR is far from being a minority warrior, she just has the common decency that all today's writers should - she includes characters of various minorities. She never makes them her heroes (not saying she owes anyone that), they are just there and not particularly well-portrayed, either.

Btw, I think the driver, Kieran Kolovas-Jones, is neither black or white, but a POC of mixed background.

Anyway, I also enjoyed the book on the whole, it was captivating to say the least - I couldn't wait to get back to it every evening. The main characters are likeable and I really liked how she structured the detective plot of the novel. As you pointed out, it's relatively simple, but fun to follow and sort-of-solvable, so in the end you get both the gratification of I knew it! as well as some neat surprises.

Arthur B at 14:58 on 2013-07-23
Rowling seems to have a weird relationship toward middle-class traditional values. On the one hand, she seems to try to criticize them, but these efforts are executed so blatantly that instead of subverting the conservative values, they turn out to reinforce them.

Cormoran's interactions with Bristow's uncle really tease this out, actually: the uncle's racism takes the form of blatant, unreformed racial theories that only very hardcore racists espouse a belief in these days, rather than the more subtle, tokenistic racism Rowling indulges in. I think you're correct that she has a tendency to indulge in tokenism because her heart is in the right place and she'd like to represent more people in her writing, but at the same time she just doesn't quite have enough first-hand knowledge to make it work and you end up with pop culture cartoon time.

Btw, I think the driver, Kieran Kolovas-Jones, is neither black or white, but a POC of mixed background.

On the one hand, this is true. On the other hand, that's a distinction the novel itself seemed almost completely blind to. (Lula is in precisely the same position but tends to be referred to as black; although she's occasionally referred to as mixed race, I felt that this tended to be treated as a particular variety of blackness rather than as an identity in itself, and was vaguely glad that Rowling didn't end up using terms like "mulatto" or "octaroon". In particular, there seems to be an assumption that mixed race people necessarily fall between the cracks and go out of their way to try and establish a credible black identity for themselves to deal with that.)

Another ugly thing is the way the novel invites you to scrutinise Lula's interactions with Kieran in the same way that it invites you to scrutinise her interactions with every single other POC in her life - it's well-established early on (and you are repeatedly reminded) that she is looking for her African dad and her biological family. This prompts you to feel suspicious and inquisitorial towards every black guy who shows up (or at least it did in my case) and yeah, not a good feeling.
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 16:28 on 2013-07-23
Cormoran's interactions with Bristow's uncle really tease this out, actually: the uncle's racism takes the form of blatant, unreformed racial theories that only very hardcore racists espouse a belief in these days, rather than the more subtle, tokenistic racism Rowling indulges in.


What I find most puzzling about this is that when it comes to the in-universe racism of the Potter novels - the prejudice against Muggles and Muggle-borns - Rowling actually displays a relatively sophisticated grasp of racism and the different ways it can manifest itself. You do have all-out Nazis, but you also have people who spout Nazi rhetoric but don't have the stomach to put it into practice (the Malfoys), people who used to express violently racist beliefs and are now on the good guys' side without ever really confirming that they've changed their minds (Snape, Grindlewald), and even people who think that they're minority warriors but are actually horribly condescending (Arthur Weasley, though in this case I may be reading against the author's intention).

I particularly liked the way the sixth book handles Horace Slughorn's racism - on the one hand, he is clearly biased against Muggle-born students; on the other hand, when he recognizes exceptional talent, such as Lily Potter or Hermione, he fosters it regardless of blood purity; on the third hand, even though people like Lily challenge his prejudices, he still spouts them thoughtlessly; and on the final hand, he has enough self-awareness to realize that this is bad, and to try to assure Harry that he isn't prejudiced. It's a pretty nuanced portrait of the kind of racism that most of us are likely to encounter. But at the same time, as you say, Rowling doesn't recognize that she's engaging in exactly the same kind of behavior when it comes to addressing real-world racism.
Arthur B at 16:38 on 2013-07-23
What I find most puzzling about this is that when it comes to the in-universe racism of the Potter novels - the prejudice against Muggles and Muggle-borns - Rowling actually displays a relatively sophisticated grasp of racism and the different ways it can manifest itself.

To be fair to Rowling, you do sort of also have that here - there's references to how Kieran, who is a struggling actor, doesn't get many roles beyond stereotypical stuff (like he had a bit part as a drug dealer on The Bill). Rowling isn't incompetent when depicting examples of racist phenomena, it's just that she sometimes slips when it comes to depicting actual people.
This prompts you to feel suspicious and inquisitorial towards every black guy who shows up (or at least it did in my case) and yeah, not a good feeling.

That's a good point, I suspected every black person of being Lula's long-lost relative,
not so much the culprit since in the beginning, Rowling had Cormoran think about Bristow's insistence on investigating the two runners as "a secret fear of the urban bogeyman, the criminal black man." That's Rowling mentioning that racial profiling is wrong and I took it as a strong indicator that the murderer is going to be white and rich.


when it comes to the in-universe racism of the Potter novels - the prejudice against Muggles and Muggle-borns - Rowling actually displays a relatively sophisticated grasp of racism and the different ways it can manifest itself.

I agree that she portrays well all the various forms of racism within the wizarding world - ie. against wizards with Muggle parent(s) - but I'd be careful to praise her when it comes down to racism against Muggles themselves.

My impression of the books (it's been six years since I read the last one, but I don't think I'm misremembering this point) was that virtually all wizards are condescending to Muggles, even Muggle-borns themselves. Try to minimize Muggle casualties in Death Eater attacks - sure; treat them as equal - no way, they don't have magic after all and are thus inherently inferior. So either Rowling created a deeply racist society that fears the Muggles so much it isolates itself from them completely, wiping out their memories when necessary --or The Muggle-Wizard relationship is just problematic and trying to apply it real-world issues is like trying to deal with the HP slaves who enjoy being slaves.
Arthur B at 12:11 on 2013-07-24
Re: exact suspicions - yes,
it never really made sense that one of Lula's absent relatives would be the killer so I never suspected that.
Daniel F at 04:59 on 2013-07-25
(I hope this is not too much of a digression.)

My impression of the books (it's been six years since I read the last one, but I don't think I'm misremembering this point) was that virtually all wizards are condescending to Muggles, even Muggle-borns themselves. Try to minimize Muggle casualties in Death Eater attacks - sure; treat them as equal - no way, they don't have magic after all and are thus inherently inferior.


It's been a while as well, but my recollection was that Rowling never made any real attempt to explain wizard attitudes towards muggles, or why they're justified. (If indeed they are supposed to be justified; I wouldn't be surprised if Rowling said that it's supposed to be ambiguous. Not that there are any great signs of that in the text.)

As I recall, Hagrid said something like 'muggles would want magical solutions to all their problems' (Why is that bad? Why not use magic to solve problems? Wouldn't wizards become fabulously rich and privileged the moment they decide to charge for their services?), and there may have been some implication that wizards fear persecution (re: witch hunts), but it was all pretty shallow.

On the whole, I don't think wizard-muggle relationships are meant to be read in a racial way: not compared to intra-wizard racism, or racism between wizards and other magical races (esp. goblins, centaurs). Muggles are shuffled out of the way quickly because HP is magical escapism. It's a power fantasy. I don't know about you, but as a kid I certainly had fantasies about being magical and amazing and getting away from boring old life. Muggles are to be read in that context, I think. When Rowling wants to talk about actual racism, she uses wizarding subgroups. She is not a very subtle author; or at least, not in the HP series.

*shrug* Certainly the moral implications of the Wizarding World are unpleasant, but in my experience that holds true for almost all urban fantasy Masquerades.
Dan H at 11:19 on 2013-07-25
On the whole, I don't think wizard-muggle relationships are meant to be read in a racial way: not compared to intra-wizard racism, or racism between wizards and other magical races (esp. goblins, centaurs).


I'm honestly not sure I agree. Or rather, I agree about half the time. The Big Racists in the setting are all very clearly bigoted against Muggles *and* Muggleborns. Voldemort reserves especial ire for his "filthy muggle father", Dumblewald wanted to rule over the Muggles for "their own good". I'm pretty sure that it's explicitly Muggles who are carrying the Chair O'Evil in the "Magic is Might" statue that Voldemort erects in the Ministry of Magic. We're fairly clearly supposed to read this as racism.

On the other hand, I do agree that we *aren't* supposed to read things like Arthur Weasley's fascination with Muggle artifacts as racist, and we're clearly supposed to read "Muggle Studies" as being part of the anti-racist, pro-muggle group (which is why Voldemort kills Charity Burbage in the final book) instead of being this hideous, patronizing, othering way to look at the culture which half your students were actually brought up in.

The problem is that these two readings are not mutually compatible (at least without engaging in a fair bit of doublethink), so you kind of have to pick one or the other. I *think* Abigail takes the second reading, which basically turns the whole war in the Wizarding World into a very close analogy of the Second World War - a struggle between the racist eugenicists who want to exterminate the people they see as inferior, and racist imperialists who would never admit to seeing themselves as superior to anybody, but who would certainly never stoop to treating other races as equals.

Incidentally, although it was clearly intended as an analogy for race, I do wonder if the whole pureblood/muggleborn thing makes more sense as an analogy for social class. The primary tension in the conflict, after all, is between people who have power because their parents had it, and people who have moved above the station they were born into. Looked at from this perspective, the basic attitudes to muggles and muggleborns in the Wizarding World make a lot more sense. The bad evil bigots think that people like Hermione are inferior because they come from a poor background, whereas the good people recognise that she is actually superior because she rose above her circumstances. But everybody agrees that the Muggles themselves are just a bunch of dirty welfare scroungers.
Arthur B at 11:32 on 2013-07-25
Data point: there are two characters in The Cuckoo's Calling who come from extremely deprived background. Both are demonised in different ways - one of them is secretive, on the make, and
is concealing information about Lula's death for personal gain, making Lula's efforts to befriend her seem foolishly trusting
, the other one is a bad mother (
specifically, Lula's mum
) who is jealous of her betters (
specifically, she thinks she was swindled out of Lula's money by them, when in fact Lula never planned to leave her a penny
).

Poor people who do not cease to be poor through their own efforts are terrifying to Rowling.
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 12:17 on 2013-07-25
The problem is that these two readings are not mutually compatible (at least without engaging in a fair bit of doublethink), so you kind of have to pick one or the other. I *think* Abigail takes the second reading, which basically turns the whole war in the Wizarding World into a very close analogy of the Second World War - a struggle between the racist eugenicists who want to exterminate the people they see as inferior, and racist imperialists who would never admit to seeing themselves as superior to anybody, but who would certainly never stoop to treating other races as equals.


I'm not sure those two readings are incompatible, actually - both of them, for example, are contained in the WWII analogy you draw. I'm pretty sure that Rowling only intends the first reading, but at the same time she also very clearly intends the books (the last one in particular) as a WWII analogy. It's just that her take on WWII is more along the lines of evil racists battling good guys who are totally not racist.

I think you have a point about the prejudice in the books corresponding to classism as much as it does racism (notwithstanding that it can often be difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins). If you look at the example of Horace Slughorn, one of the ways in which his prejudice manifests itself is that he is less likely to invite Muggleborn students to participate in his private club, which is explicitly described as an important networking opportunity and intended, I think, to remind us of similar clubs in Oxbridge. Keeping Muggleborn students out of Slughorn's inner circle is reminiscent of the phenomenon where lower class people have, on paper, the same opportunities as the upper class, but because they're not from the right set, miss out on connections that could help advance them.

Which I'm not sure says as much about Rowling as it does about the difficulty of mapping real world prejudice onto a fantasy world. I was thinking about this just recently when trying to write about Rachel Hartman's Seraphina (a book that I think FB folk would enjoy very much). The main character is a half-human, half-dragon who is passing for human, and while her predicament has components of both racial and transsexual passing, to try to read her as experiencing either one or the other is reductive and, when looked at in a certain way, kind of offensive.
Dan H at 14:16 on 2013-07-25
It's just that her take on WWII is more along the lines of evil racists battling good guys who are totally not racist.


I sort of feel that reading to be incompatible with the reading in which it's a battle between evil racists and less evil people who are still racist, but I suspect that we might be splitting hairs over the definition of "incompatible" at this point.

Which I'm not sure says as much about Rowling as it does about the difficulty of mapping real world prejudice onto a fantasy world.


I think that's probably very true - if nothing else you always wind up with slightly unfortunate implications when you use supernatural thingies as a metaphor for something in the real world. I'm reminded of the way that True Blood uses vampirism as a metaphor for homosexuality. Except that, umm, vampires in that setting kind of do kill a whole lot of people...
re Arthur B's data point:

Rowling has certain patterns of characters that re-appear throughout her novels, as every multiple-novel author does. In Rowling's case, there are the token representatives of minorities and now I'm also starting to see the poor mother who tries to rise above her station through the means of her baby, ie. relying on the biological predisposition of most women rather than on the means of her own hard work. Not that raising a baby isn't hard work - but that's the point here, these bad mothers never get to or skip this stage and they are punished by the plot for wanting to cheat their way out of their fate, so to speak.

In Harry Potter, there's ugly Merope who starts out in dreadful conditions, but then feeds Tom Riddle, the handsome aristocrat, love potion and conceives a baby with him (Voldemort). But then Riddle wakes up to reality and she loses all desire for life.

In Casual Vacancy,
there's Crystal who lives in dreadful conditions (her mother is a hopeless drug addict, no money, social worker threatens to take away her little brother), but then a well-to-do spoiled bully starts dating her, basically as a joke, and she jumps at the opportunity and plans to conceive a baby with him, which she hopes would be a solution to all her and her little brother's problems. But when she is busy having sex with the boy, her little brother drowns.


In Cuckoo,
there's Lula's mom who sleeps with the well-to-do, well-educated good-looking guy and then gives up the unwanted burden of a baby - only to try and use her daughter's fame afterwards and being exposed by the narrative as a terrible person who deserves the life she has.
Daniel F at 18:26 on 2013-07-25
I'm honestly not sure I agree. Or rather, I agree about half the time. The Big Racists in the setting are all very clearly bigoted against Muggles *and* Muggleborns. Voldemort reserves especial ire for his "filthy muggle father", Dumblewald wanted to rule over the Muggles for "their own good". I'm pretty sure that it's explicitly Muggles who are carrying the Chair O'Evil in the "Magic is Might" statue that Voldemort erects in the Ministry of Magic. We're fairly clearly supposed to read this as racism.


Ah, I see your point. I'm sure you're correct about the 'Magic is Might' statue. I suspect I was thinking much more of the early novels, where the political language is more subdued. (Sorry, I've had them a bit on the brain lately. Various reasons.)

I am honestly not sure what to say about the series as a whole. Muggles have no voice in the series, and even when he's in a position of power, Voldemort doesn't interact with them or do anything to their detriment. I suppose the Potter series is inconsistent about how the Wizarding World sees muggles? Apologies for focusing on the early books again, but there are plenty of examples of wizards' utter ignorance of muggles. There's a slight contradiction there: how can wizarding culture simultaneously hold actively racist attitudes towards muggles and yet not know even the most basic things about muggle society?

I *think* Abigail takes the second reading, which basically turns the whole war in the Wizarding World into a very close analogy of the Second World War - a struggle between the racist eugenicists who want to exterminate the people they see as inferior, and racist imperialists who would never admit to seeing themselves as superior to anybody, but who would certainly never stoop to treating other races as equals.


I'd quibble the second group down to xenophobes, not imperialists. As far as I can tell most wizards have no desire to rule over or exploit muggles. Quite the contrary: they don't seem to think muggles have anything they might conceivably want.

I suppose I would say that the dominant attitude to muggles is 'we want nothing to do with those smelly, boring normal people', with both Death-Eater-esque hatred and Weasley-esque patronising fascination diverging from that baseline.

Er, not that I'm saying any of those attitudes aren't problematic. They clearly are. But I suppose it comes back to Rowling's desire to keeping Wizarding Britain a parallel secret world. If there was any sizeable group of wizards willing to engage with muggles, the secret world could not be maintained. Even too much penetration of muggle culture into the Wizarding World would destroy Hogwarts and all its faux-medieval romanticism. I'm not sure how you can have a premise like the Wizarding World without some sort of racism.
Dan H at 18:55 on 2013-07-25
There's a slight contradiction there: how can wizarding culture simultaneously hold actively racist attitudes towards muggles and yet not know even the most basic things about muggle society?


I'm pretty sure history (to say nothing of the present) is littered with people who have held actively racist attitudes towards people they've known nothing about.

Even too much penetration of muggle culture into the Wizarding World would destroy Hogwarts and all its faux-medieval romanticism.


I think the "technology doesn't work here because reasons" thing helps a bit, but to be honest even *with* the alleged detachment between Muggles and Wizards, the Wizarding World doesn't *really* make much sense anyway.

I'd also point out that the Wizarding World is actually a bit of a patchwork in terms of its influences. An *awful* lot of it looks a lot more like the 1950s than the 1590s, and a lot of the time the Wizards use explicitly modern mugglish things to hide their magic (like flushing public toilets and telephone boxes).
Dan H at 18:58 on 2013-07-25
Oh, and with apologies for double posting, I can't help but notice (and I mean this as no criticism of anybody involved in this discussion, it's one I'm happily engaging in myself) that it took very little time at all for this article about Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling to turn into a conversation about the Harry Potter series.

Which I sort of think is why JKR wanted to use a pseudonym.
Daniel F at 04:16 on 2013-07-26
I'm pretty sure history (to say nothing of the present) is littered with people who have held actively racist attitudes towards people they've known nothing about.


I can only imagine it's slightly more difficult when you live inside the very culture you are racist towards, though. Wizard racism towards muggles is very much not the same as, say, colonial racism towards Africans or Indians.

An *awful* lot of it looks a lot more like the 1950s than the 1590s, and a lot of the time the Wizards use explicitly modern mugglish things to hide their magic (like flushing public toilets and telephone boxes).


Aye. The example that was springing to mind for me was wizards being confused that pictures in muggle posters or newspapers don't move. That hardly seems compatible with a world where every wizard was lining up at King's Cross Station to go to school. Or for that matter, Arthur Weasley asking Harry excitedly if there were 'escapators' on the Underground in book two, whereas as far as I'm aware, King's Cross is full of escalators.

Or rather, wizards are ignorant of muggles whenever it would be charmingly quaint of them, regardless of whether it makes sense.

Rowling's worldbuilding in a nutshell, I suppose. As far as wizarding racism goes, though, I suspect it is an inevitable requirement of the setting. Wizarding culture cannot resemble contemporary muggle culture or it cannot be escapist -

Wait, no, I can't say that with a straight face. It cannot be escapist in the way Rowling seemed to want it to be escapist. There's plenty of fan fiction that ups the muggle influence and it works fine. Once you've established that you're going to have a wall of ignorance between the two worlds, though, you find yourself in a bind. Racism is a straightforward answer. I can think of other contexts where racism works (pretty much every White Wolf RPG springs to mind), but the HP series is not up for admitting that even sympathetic characters hold unpleasant attitudes, or that the Wizarding World is deeply messed up. The HP series is a bit too Manichaean for that.

Oh, and with apologies for double posting, I can't help but notice (and I mean this as no criticism of anybody involved in this discussion, it's one I'm happily engaging in myself) that it took very little time at all for this article about Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling to turn into a conversation about the Harry Potter series.


I was nervous about starting this tangent for that very reason. For better or for worse, Rowling is known as the Potter author, and since HP is more more widely read than her other works...

Great, now I feel obligated to pick up The Cuckoo's Calling so that I can talk about it. Bah.
Fishing in the Mud at 15:04 on 2013-07-26
Yeah, when wizards live literally right next door to muggles, there's no reason for them not to know how muggles dress. That kind of joke is only funny when you don't hear it over and over until you're forced to think about it and realize it makes no sense, like the name Remus Lupin.
Jamie Johnston at 19:09 on 2013-07-27
I was reading through the comments and took a break to look up Seraphina on Goodreads, and what should I see when I signed in but—

Site Announcement: Exclusive: J.K. Rowling on How She Crafts Gritty, Realistic Characters

Rowling's entire answer is, for some reason, presented in the form of a slightly blurry screen-cap.
Robinson L at 18:06 on 2013-08-08
I'm pretty indifferent to Rowling as a writer – I think the only reason I pay her as much attention as I do is that my whole family had the Harry Potter bug big for a couple of years, and I got sucked in a bit.

On the other hand, I may want to give this a try if I can find it easily on audio; the mysteries in the first four books were always a highlight of the series for me. The racist and classist elements are bad, obviously, but if I'm honest I must've read and enjoyed countless books that were similarly problematic (and in many cases, not even noticed it), and no doubt I'll continue to do so.

Daniel F: I can only imagine it's slightly more difficult when you live inside the very culture you are racist towards, though. Wizard racism towards muggles is very much not the same as, say, colonial racism towards Africans or Indians.

I assume by this you mean the colonial racism of white people living in England, France, Belgium, Holland, or wherever, as opposed to white colonials living in Algeria or South Africa or India? Sorry, it's a bit unclear, and I suspect you're right that they're two very different flavors of racism.
Daniel F at 11:38 on 2013-08-09
I assume by this you mean the colonial racism of white people living in England, France, Belgium, Holland, or wherever, as opposed to white colonials living in Algeria or South Africa or India? Sorry, it's a bit unclear, and I suspect you're right that they're two very different flavors of racism.


The former, yes. The sort of racism that's distinguished by its utter separation from and ignorance of its target.

Er, not that it's impossible to have highly segregated and racist enclaves within a broader society. But you take my point. Wizard culture should not be able to sustain the level of ignorance of muggles that it regularly displays.
Arthur B at 11:52 on 2013-08-09
Er, not that it's impossible to have highly segregated and racist enclaves within a broader society. But you take my point. Wizard culture should not be able to sustain the level of ignorance of muggles that it regularly displays.

I think the distinction is that in Rowling's scenario two wizards will occasionally yield a muggle child, and two muggles will occasionally yield a wizard. It isn't even theoretically possible to completely culturally insulate the two worlds from each other when you consider that a reasonable portion of wizards would have been raised in muggle families until they got old enough to go to Hogwarts, and a fair few wizard parents will end up having some contact with the muggle world if only via their child.

And yet there's this mysterious cultural apartheid anyway where all the wizards listen to special wizard bands and have no interest in muggle music in the slightest.

This is yet another one of those things where the slip from "school stories with a big magic theme" to "fantasy epic where Rowling tries to wow everyone with her worldbuilding" makes things much, much worse. In the early Potter books where it's basically a school story about Harry making the scary transition to secondary school and making new friends and bonding with them over shared experiences it makes sense to have Harry be mad keen on wizard music but not give two shits about muggle music, because that's the music his friends happen to be into. In the later Potter books where heaps of plot elements that were introduced as allegorical parallels to IRL school stuff (like the Sorting Hat) needed to be hammered into a different worldbuilding framework it looks bizarre.
Sonia Mitchell at 23:28 on 2014-08-20
This was on sale in the Kindle store for £1.99 so I've finally read it, and I agree with most of this review. Despite the various flaws it was an entertaining read.

One thing that bugged me that hasn't been mentioned is that the book slips between different points of view quite loosely, and without warning. I think this is a particularly problematic habit in a mystery story - if characters are concealing information or generally being unreliable, the reader needs to be absolutely certain whose POV is being used.

I also felt that the red herring of the
water drops on the landing
was clumsy. Obviously we're supposed to think that it's
melted snow
, but the actual explanation makes no sense.
Why was Strike expecting something to be there? Who would really be expected to slip on a few drops of water?


And to be a bit of a Captain Killjoy - and this is just my own reaction, not one I'm suggesting others should have - I didn't like the depiction of Robin. I get that the point is for her to come into this as a blank slate who ends up being an integral piece, but it was all too 1950s for me. Her special abilities include finding coffee and getting women to open up to her in girly chats. She's introduced in post-engagement elation, gloating over how her ring sparkles. She's needy for praise and gives Strike the cold shoulder when he forgets to give it. There's nothing wrong with any of that in real life (well, except the neediness, but it's a very human trait), but as a character type she rubbed me up the wrong way.

I think you're probably right about an extended romance plot but I also find that quite problematic given the paternal tones of the working relationship. Again, personal preference only.
Arthur B at 11:12 on 2014-08-21
I get that the point is for her to come into this as a blank slate who ends up being an integral piece, but it was all too 1950s for me. Her special abilities include finding coffee and getting women to open up to her in girly chats.

Without spoilering, I can say that Silkworm does do some work to turn this around in three important ways:

- Her engagement ends up in crisis and she has to deal with that, so she no longer comes across as sleepwalking into a marriage which clearly isn't going to work for her and in general seems to be actually thinking about her relationship with Matthew a bit more critically. (I actually think Rowling manages to finesse it here so that the engagement ends up not being a fairytale fantasy but also not being an obvious trap, but a realistic relationship that has to be worked on and may or may not be worth working on.)
- There's more references to her past and Something Mysterious which prompted her to drop out of university (though it isn't revealed yet - I suspect it's going to be fodder for a subsequent novel).
- Most importantly, she reveals a side of her skill set which radically goes against the grain of what's been revealed so far. Whilst to an extent we're meant to be shocked and surprised precisely because she, of all people, is able to do the stuff she does, at the same time it does mean she can engage with the dangerous side of detective-ing a bit more directly.

Also, though the working relationship is still a bit paternal, it shifts from boss/secretary to detective/apprentice, so there's scope for them to evolve into business partners as well as romantic partners.
Sonia Mitchell at 15:18 on 2014-09-22
Ok, that makes it more tempting to try the next one, particularly combined with your very positive review.

Re The Cuckoo's Calling title, I presume that the cuckoo
was originally meant to be John Bristow, who pushes his adoptive siblings to their deaths. However, then a lot of other cuckoo imagery was crowbarred in, which is kind of necessary to avoid pointing at the murderer
. That imagery is, as you say, distasteful and in some cases just silly (the only reason for Guy to call Landry 'Cuckoo' is meta-textual).
Alice at 14:45 on 2015-02-26
I just read this (my decision to pick it up being mostly based on this review, actually), and quite enjoyed it for what it is, i.e. comfort food for the white English middle-class brain. I agree that the handling of race (and class, and gender) seemed more well-intentioned than well-executed -- though I didn't exactly have high expectations for the execution side of things to start with...

Cormoran Strike reminded me rather of Kate Atkinson's PI character Jackson Brodie: both ex-military, with tragic family backgrounds pushing them into detective work, not to mention having failed romantic relationships hanging over them, though those are rather better incorporated into the Brodie books: I felt that Charlotte in Cuckoo was a pretty unnecessary Vindictive Beautiful Harpy #3 stereotype of a character who didn't add much to the story.

(I'd recommend the Brodie books as a somewhat meatier version of the Strike novel(s), btw.)

I also agree that the title seems a little strange, but it helped me to realise that it's a reference to Christina Rossetti's poem "A Dirge" (Why were you born when the snow was falling? / You should have come to the cuckoo’s calling [...] Why did you die when the lambs were cropping? /You should have died at the apples’ dropping), which is used as an epigraph to the novel. It's still a problematic bit of imagery when applied to adoptees, though!

Incidentally, I keep thinking of Cormoran Strike as "Cormorant Shrike" and wondering if his names' similarity to the bird species is in any way deliberate.
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