As I said in a previous post I have recently read the Cormoran Strike novels by Robert Galbraith. It is pity that those books would not have sold well, if it had not be known that Galbraith is no one but J. K. Rowling herself, as the Strike novels are well-written detective stories. And to be honest I believe these books are far better than the Harry Potter series.
In my humble opinion there are basically two types of writers: character oriented writers and concept oriented writers. The former starts with the characters and then builds the story around them, while the latter does it the other way around. Many authors of science fiction and fantasy belong the latter group, a good example of a concept oriented writer would be Wheel of Time creator Robert Jordan.
Rowling, however, is a character oriented writer, as evidenced by the story how she got the idea the write about Harry Potter. First she started by the idea of an eleven-year-old who discovers to be a wizard, then she started to work out the details. The good point of this approach is that her characters are well-developed, which explains to some extent the popularity of the Harry Potter books.
The downside is, however, that she got troubled with some world building issues. Rowling invents very little and mostly borrows stuff from traditional folklore. PS in particular shows virtually zero invention by Rowling – for instance the first scene in which professor McGonagall is introduced we see the traditional link between cats and witches.
Though borrowing from tradition is not bad by itself but in my opinion a lot of stuff in Harry Potter is there for no good reason other than it answers to common expectations about wizards and witches. And much of this stuff actually hinders Rowling to tell her great story.
Since the Cormoran Strike novels are set in our own world, world building is not an issue and hence Rowling can do what she is great at: writing about characters. And she does a great job by creating the series two main characters: Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacot.
Rowling has invested a lot of effort in working out the background stories of these two characters and not without success. Strike and his assistant Robin are complementary characters, he is the experience detective and she is the new, unexperienced, secretary, who is accidentally assigned to work for him. This asymmetry works because Strike is forced to explain his line of reasoning to Robin and hence to us the readers.
Of course, this detective/assistant relationship is not new, as it has been used since Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. But then Rowling does not pretend to be an innovative writer. In my opinion this lack of innovation is not a bad thing as Rowling does an excellent job writing a classic whodunit novel with realistic characters.
Rowling writes quite a lot about the private lives of the two main characters, which is not directly related to the investigation. However, I do not think this is a bad thing. People do not exist in a vacuum, part are part of a family and have friends. Those relationships influence our way of thinking and hence do affect how we do our jobs. altogether I believe there is a good balance between the private lives and the investigation in these novels.
Virtually all detective fiction make use of motive, means and opportunity. Cormoran Strike quite interestingly points out that motive is the least important of this triad. If one thinks about it, this makes sense. Everyone or almost everyone has a motive commit some crime. So the first thing any criminal investigator has to do is to narrow down the number of potential suspects. And means and opportunity are far more limiting factors than is motives. Rowling deserves a lot of credit for this observation.
In a proper detective story the crime is not solved until the very end, to allow the reader to develop his or her own theory on who is the culprit. Rowling is a great master of suspense and all three Cormoran Strike novels end with a surprising twist. And much to my appetite the culprit is not the most likely suspect, the one you would mark early in the story as the person with the greatest motive to commit the crime.
There is no point in reading a whodunit if the crime is solved on page one, at least not for the reader. Of course, there are thrillers were we know the perpetrator from the beginning, but those works usually do not focus on the whodunit aspect.
Like the Harry Potter books Rowling includes subtle humor in Cormoran Strike. These books are a good read for those who want to enjoy an entertaining crime novel. I am quite happy to know book four in this series will appear later this year. I am looking forward to Cormoran Strike’s next case.