The Mystery of J.K. Rowling’s Mystery
Life imitates art imitating detectives. A mystery emerges, and Harry Potter comes to the rescue.
The story begins with Cormoran Strike, the private-investigator protagonist of “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” a mystery novel released in April. Strike is the creation of writer Robert Galbraith, himself formerly of the Special Investigative Branch of the Royal Military Police. But Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym. And, this weekend, we learned that no such former military cop exists.
The mystery that Strike spends the book solving revolves around the death of a supermodel. The mystery that editors at The Sunday Times in London spent the end of last week solving revolves around whether Galbraith is actually J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame.
According to Sarah Lyall of the New York Times, someone at The Sunday Times received a set of anonymous tweets alleging that Rowling was the book’s author. Richard Brooks, the paper's arts-editor-turned-detective, matched up Galbraith's and Rowling's utilization of Latin phrases and depictions of drug use, and the fact that they shared an agent, publisher and editor. He summoned computer linguistic experts to do some cross-examination and eventually provoked a confession from Rowling's people: She’s guilty as charged. But there’s one more mystery left to be solved: Who sent those tweets in the first place?
Business Insider put on its detective cap and decided it might have been a Twitter user with the name Jude Callegari who tweeted at Sunday Times writer India Knight and then deleted the tweets in question. Brooks told NPR that Knight was the one who received the tip. But he also said that the source's account was deleted, and the "@Judecallegari" Twitter account is still active, with 31 followers to boot. Doing my own bit of digging, I found Instagram photos of children tweeted from the account that seem to match up with the Facebook profile of a Jude Callegari.
Internet stalking aside, it's not completely clear who Callegari is, if that's really her name, whether she had anything to do with this incident and, even if she did, whether she was merely the cover or conduit for another actor. So, let the speculation continue.
The next question becomes one of motive: Why would someone reveal this information?
It seems all-but-impossible that it was a lucky guess from a die-hard Harry Potter fan. More likely, is that it was a person on the fringes of the book’s release, somehow in the know, who leaked the information, just because he or she could. Leaking, after all, is quite the rage these days.
Then there’s the possibility it was Rowling herself. She seems to deny it. "I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience,” Rowling said in a statement. “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”
In other words: When you publish one of the most famous book series of all time, the only direction you go with subsequent books is down. And down with a whole lot of reminders of how you were once up.
Rowling learned this when her novel “The Casual Vacancy” came out in September. Star-power-driven sales were great, but reviews were not universally so. The Guardian’s Theo Tait called it “a solid, traditional and determinedly unadventurous English novel.” The Washington Post’s Monica Hesse admitted that she could not help but think, “This book would be a little better if everyone were carrying wands.” And the New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani wrote, “There is no magic in this book — in terms of wizarding or in terms of narrative sorcery.”
A pseudonym offered Rowling the chance to start fresh. The manuscript apparently met with some rejection. The reviews were fewer, but better -- and devoid of spells and wands. Publishers Weekly proclaimed, “In a rare feat, the pseudonymous Galbraith combines a complex and compelling sleuth and an equally well-formed and unlikely assistant with a baffling crime in his stellar debut.” Geoffrey Wansell wrote in the Daily Mail, “There is no sign whatsoever that this is Galbraith’s first novel, only that he has a delightful touch, both for evoking London and for capturing a new hero. It is an auspicious debut.” And the thriller-writer Val McDermid remarked in the Guardian that the book “embraces the best of traditional mystery fiction, private-eye pace and the kind of writing that reminds me why I love this genre.”
What the book gained in acclaim, it lost in sales. Prior to its association with Rowling, “The Cuckoo’s Calling” had only sold about 1,500 copies. But Rowling, with a net worth of about half a billion dollars according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, is not exactly living book sale to book sale.
You know what’s not rolling in cash, though? The publishing industry. And so we arrive at the most probable leaker: Someone at publisher, Little, Brown and Company. Lyall, writing in the New York Times, seems to suspect such a twist: “It is, of course, possible that the anonymous tweets were part of a sneaky campaign by the publisher to get the story out.”
A sneaky campaign. And a very successful one. Since Rowling’s name became associated with the book, sales skyrocketed. According to Publishers Weekly, within 24 hours it was No. 1 on Amazon (and backordered for 10 to 14 days) and No. 1 in print on Barnes & Noble's website. The news media resumed talk of “literary wizardry” and invisibility cloaks. Those on Twitter made wry jokes, one particularly spot-on one coming from Michael Moran: “Idea for publishers: 1: Reveal that ALL books were written by JK Rowling. 2: Sales of all books soar by 150,000%. 3: Industry saved.”
Galbraith's next book about Strike is due out next summer, and we'll see how the press and public respond to "his" work when it's not shielded by the veneer of novice anonymity. Until then J.K. Rowling can rest assured that she's turned us all into detectives. I'd still rather be a wizard.
(Zara Kessler is an assistant editor and producer for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)