With the impending release of Lethal White, the next volume in J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike Mysteries, an old question occurred to me. Has there been any uptick in enthusiasm from her fanbase? Maybe I don’t pay enough attention, however I still don’t know whether the series has yet to pick up steam.
I hope the series does pick up notice. It’d be a mistake for her fans to neglect what so far has proven to be a more or less fine-tuned storytelling machine. At the same time, it is possible to take a few educated guesses at just why the series might be held back from total popularity. It can even be argued what elements of the books themselves might keep it from a wider appeal. I bring the topic of the books’ reception up because I think that if the response to Cormoran Strike should ever turn out to be more guarded than that given to the Potter series, then it helps to understand the reasons why longtime fans might turn out to have a surprising amount of ambivalence with regard to the latest fictional exploits of their favorite author.
With that in mind, after the jump, you’ll find a list of aspects about the series, Jo Rowling’s fans, and what a potential clash between the two could mean for the series’ prospects.
Once about a while ago, an associate of Jim Henson’s once admitted to being sorry that working for the Children’s Television Workshop on Sesame Street might have saddled them with a permanent reputation as “just kid’s stuff”. There seems very little to apologize for, yet the anecdote does reveal something about the almost unshakable quality of first impressions.
While I think Rowling started her career on the right note by welcoming readers of all ages into her Wizarding World, the fact remains that in writing about Harry Potter she tapped into a vein that was able to appeal to a literal mass audience. The Hogwarts Saga has more than demonstrated its ability to entertain demographic ages that range from as young as five years all the way to the Big 5-0. I don’t think this was intentional on her part, rather the Potter books were written in such a way that the great majority of people have been able to appreciate and support.
By turning to the Thriller genre for her next big exploits, whether she means to or not, she now runs the risk of halving a slice of her pre-established base. Don’t get me wrong, it is quite possible write a detective story for children, or at least to write a detective story in such a way that it might replicate the cross-generational appeal that Harry enjoyed. It should be obvious that this is precisely the direction Ms. Rowling has not taken. However entertaining the Strike novels may be, almost no parent is going to be comfortable passing them down to their kids, at least, not until they’re older.
In terms of a language rating, Rowling was able to keep things mostly at PG level throughout Harry’s story. It’s only near the very end of Deathly Hallows that she breaks this rule, by giving Molly Weasley the chance to utter a much earned B-word in response to a threat on her daughter’s life. So far, I’ve never heard any complaint about its use in the final Potter novel. I think the reason must be that reader identification in that moment was always so tight that it was impossible to even bat an eyelash at such an out of place word. In the moment, a reader, in particular a parent, is never going to question such an emphatic statement of caring for one’s own offspring.
In Strike’s world we enter a setting where profanity is a literal everyday occurrence that is sometimes wall-to-wall in terms of acoustics. Most parents are likely to think twice before even so much as walking a kid through that kind of environment. If language is just the hors d’oeuvre, then the main course in the controversy surrounding the Strike series is a bit of a doozy.
Violence in Noir and Gothic Fiction
Here’s a question: how many Rowling fans also read Stephen King? Okay, how many more are fans of movies like Halloween, Night of the Living Dead, or classics like Psycho or Evil Dead 2 or Army of Darkness?
If I had to guess, I’d say those who would answer yes to all of the above take up a sizeable number of The Presence’s audience. In terms of being able to earn a living off of Strike, she’s got nothing to worry about. It’s when you turn to the same question of age and taste that the problem starts. The kind of films I mention, and the sort of books Rowling is now penning are all defined by two things for our purposes: their age group can neatly range from teen to adult, and their subject matter is, for lack of a better word, dark.
To give an example of what I mean, let’s take a film that might have at least a thematic relation to the next Strike book. Part of the fan discussion has been whether or not Strike Book 4, Lethal White, will concern the drug heroine. I know of a horror film that centers round it.
Wait until Dark is a 1967 thriller, starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin, that tells the story of Lisa, “the World’s Champion Blind Woman”. She suffers her condition as the result of a bad car accident that happens off-stage before the curtain opens. Since then, she’s been attending blind school, and slowly, yet surely learning to cope with a literal change into a new life. For the most part, however, she has been able to continue living a normal existence.
Then one day, Harry walks into her life. Meet Harry Roat Jr. “from Scarsdale”. He’s a professional courier/hitman of sorts, and his latest escapade involves hunting down a few kilos of heroine stashed away in a musical doll. Through some mix-up the doll wound up in the possession of Lisa’s husband, who has brought it home, and has now misplaced it. This makes Harry very unhappy. Now, after successfully manipulating her husband out of the way, Harry is left alone with Lisa in her tiny apartment, and he is determined to find that doll, whatever it takes.
If the set up sounds dull, then the final result is a far different beast. The movie telegraphs its nature early on when Arkin’s Roat gets into an argument with his two partners. It escalates to the point that Roat draws a stiletto with a handle carved in the shape of a woman, and one of the henchman picks up an old rotary dial phone and swings it like a medieval mace. It’s at that moment the viewer should realize they’ve entered Insane Clown Posse territory. To top it all off, that scene ends with Roat granting his accomplices access to a closet. There’s a very nasty surprise waiting in that closet. Don’t surprised if, when that scene comes up, you’ll hear the Twin Peaks theme in your head.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. At its heart, the story is a kind of modern gothic fairy-tale, with the character of Harry Roat from Scarsdale embodying a latter day Big Bad Wolf. The reason I bring it up at all is to highlight the territory Rowling is now working in with the Strike Mysteries.
By penning stories like Silkworm or Career of Evil, she signaled her clear intent to tread the same ground as films like Wait until Dark or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That probably sounds like a stretch. She’s J.K. Rowling after all, not Ted Bundy. Perhaps, however bear in mind that what matters is the genre she has now chosen to write in. It is known as either the Mystery, Thriller, or Detective genre. However the term that seems to best encompass the whole of the ideas that make up the genre is Noir.
In his book Horror Noir, critic Paul Meehan is able to demonstrate the genre’s origins as an offshoot of Gothic fiction.
“The macabre has been an element of the mystery story since the inception of the genre. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, first published in 1841, is considered to be the first example of detective fiction. Poe’s eccentric sleuth M. Auguste Dupin cracks a multiple murder case in which the perpetrator turns out to be a homicidal ape. Arthur Conan Doyle’s most memorable Sherlock Holmes adventure is surely his 1901 novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which Holmes squares off against a phantom hound and a ghostly family curse. The Victorian writer Wilkie Collins incorporated the trappings of the supernatural into his seminal detective novels The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868). All of these writers (and Poe in particular) are also known for their horror fiction.
“Morbidity has always been a prime feature of detective/mystery fiction, where ghastly murders and dire plans constitute the soul of the plot. The noir fiction of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich and Raymond Chandler, although realistic in nature, is populated with characters who are monstrous grotesques (3)”.
I’d argue that this same shared grotesque element is one we’ll be seeing here and there in Denmark Street for quite a while. It’s a change of tone that is quite drastic. Don’t be surprised if some fans are willing to abandon her because of that. King once said that the question most often asked is “why do you write that stuff?” In other words, why waste your time on a bunch of junk like horror fiction? I think we can expect a variation of that question to one day be put to Ms. Rowling.
The bottom line is that, for the time being, she’s decided to take the audience down some very dark alleys. She decided that she has a lot of “interesting things” to show us. We just have to be willing to follow over to that special corner, the one where not even the light from the street lamps can touch. It probably doesn’t help that one of the rules is we can’t even bring a night light along with us for protection. It should go without saying that she plans on showing us a lot of nasty surprises while leading us through the dark. For instance, what’s that she’s got behind her back, and why does it glint even in the dark. Why does she smile like that?
It’s a deliberate challenge she has thrown down for readers. For that reason it may help to know where everyone’s boundaries are. So far, I’ve done the best I could to give a hint at the challenge concerning the level of violence and gore that an audience might be willing to stomach. For a long time the biggest accusation she’s had to fend off was that of being some kind of witch. Now, the challenge will shift to the age-old question of how much is too much in a work of adult fiction. When it comes to her fans, I think the response to the Strike Series will come in at least three categories
The Three Responses to Strike.
1 The Reluctant Fan.
This is the type of reader or viewer who have the least interest in anything that could be labeled dark and violent subject matter. Their reasons will vary from general squeamishness to even an actual lack of ability to be either scared, or entertained by fear as represented in any work of art. It is from this group that most of the criticisms of Rowling’s new books are likely to come from.
The most common complaint to expect from this group is that “she’s just not like her old self”, “why can’t we have the old Jo back”, “I liked you better when you wrote kid’s stuff,” etc. It may be possible to win over converts from this group, however, unless a willingness or imaginative sympathy on their part is displayed, I’d say it’s best to let things be. The second group is a much more promising and fertile ground.
- The Fence Sitters.
This section contains anyone from the casual reader willing to take what comes, to the literary omnivore. You can expect most of the people in this group to have taken at least the kind of interest in Rowling’s work that will keep them coming back for more. These readers may or may not have hipped to the fact that Bob Galbraith and the Hogwarts author are one and the same, though finding out such a fact may serve to pique their interest. If they can come away from any of the first three books in the series thinking it was pretty fun and wanting more, then they’re the right sort of audience for Rowling’s new venture.
- The Enthusiasts.
This is a group that comes in two interrelated parts. These are long established members of Rowling’s original audience, people who’ve been with her since all the way back in 97 when the first Potter novel was released. Their fandom has never really gone away, and darn it if they’re still eager for more. There is, however, one peculiar fact about them. In order to understand what it is, it helps to compare them with the first group. That first set also contained a lot of die-hard Rowling fans, yet only a few of them are willing or able to make the transition from fairy story to Noir. The reason why has to do with the fact that this third group is distinguished by one possible shared trait: most of us are also fans of the modern Gothic as well.
As a member of this third group, part of the appeal of the Strike books is the familiarity factor. For me, taking a first peek into these volumes was like going back visit some old, yet well liked stomping ground, like a sandlot used for sport when you were a kid. I was introduced to the world of Conan-Doyle somewhere about 9 to 12 years old. Before that, John Bellairs and Alvin Schwartz, and then Edgar Allen Poe granted me my first introduction to the Horror genre. It’s like they were sort of my Tales from the Crypt in a way. It’s precisely because these kinds of books made up the content of my literary education that I had no real problem jumping right into the world of Cormoran Strike.
I think there’s a high possibility that any reader who says they like the Strike series will do so because of either a shared similar background in reading material, or else a shared taste in the arts. We were raised on the Gothic, in the variety of its two main genres, Horror and Mystery. Anyone with that kind an imaginative sympathy will find a great deal to enjoy about the Denmark Street novels.
Conclusion: Muted yet Great Expectations
Ms. Rowling was never a stranger to controversy. In the beginning, she had to fend off accusations that she was either a witch, or else some kind of occultist. I don’t think switching genre gears is going to make her detractors go away. However, it is possible the shape of those protests will take a different, yet similar form. Expect the next big to be Rowling controversy to swirl around the age old question of violence in fiction. Look for her to be held up as a bad example for children with her focus on “the criminal element”. She might even have to fend off the most ironic charge imaginable, that her portrayal of violence against women will actually get her labeled as anti-woman.
All of those charges sound absurd if given even a moments honest thought. Nothing could be further from her intentions than promoting some kind of misogyny. As for bad examples, why on earth would you assume she’s writing children’s fiction? Cuckoo’s Calling begins with the author laying out a scene of devastation as she describes the aftermath of Lula Landry’s death as seen through the eyes of Inspectors Wardle, Carver, and the ever-present Paparazzi. While all of it is exciting, and helps to build a momentum of suspense, nothing in this opening set-up suggests that what follows will be child friendly.
The irony is that Harry Potter has somehow managed to cement itself as “kids’ stuff” in the popular imagination. The fact that Rowling was able to break out of this mold means the clash of audience expectations will have to be jarring by its very nature. This inability to see past public perceptions of reputation is going to be one of the major stumbling blocks that new readers to the Strike series will have to face.
Finally, the last element of the Strike series that could limit its appeal is the nature of its very familiarity. The Potter series seems to have just enough novelty about it that it was able to coast on the idea that audiences had discovered something new and intriguing on the publishing scene.
With Strike, Rowling is treading familiar territory in a way that many have seen before. If Strike had been written by any of the old veterans of this genre, say by Donald Westlake or Ed Mcbain, chances are it would have been relegated to the midlist fiction rack. This is the rung occupied by the likes of John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon, Dean Koontz and V.C. Andrews. The irony is that such an outcome might not have been bad news as far as the author is concerned. If Rowling had never been outed as the writer of the Strike books, if she had been able to keep hidden under her pseudonym, then the idea of a quiet career in midlist fiction might have been right up her alley. As it stands, she still looks like being able to enjoy such prospects. For all we know, this could very well have been her intention all along.
Either way, here’s the major prediction. The next great conflict J.K. Rowling will have to face in her new career as a novelist is whether the sheer narrative drive of her stories will be enough to win over new converts or whether pride and prejudice will carry the day.