BBC1 ‘Strike’ News Releases, Reviews Rowling Talks about Mystery Genre

The broadcasting of the BBC1 adaptation of Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling the past two nights with the finale this weekend has resulted in a flurry of press coverage to include a revealing interview with J. K. Rowling, the author reality behind the ‘Galbraith’ pseudonym.

For a positive review of the series’ first episodes, click here for Episode 1 and here for Episode 2. For a reviewer who has not read the book trying to figure out whodunnit (and unknowingly sharing with us who have read the books but cannot watch the teevee shows the points of departure from the original), click here for Episode 1 and here for Episode 2.

We have confrmation from the Leaky Cauldron that the website we’ve been discussing the last two days (see here and here) is in fact “new.” [It claims there are “a couple of hidden links;” I found one under the Career of Evil script but it only went to the teevee page link that could be found on the page header.] There are old links, as I pointed out yesterday, some going back two years, and the copy of Every Man in His Humour may not be a pointer to Lethal White (it is quoted five times in the Silkworm chapter epigraphs). But that chart of a business chain of command with Robin as PA to a CEO with a scandalous past is certainly fresh.

A new thought. Could this be the Personal Assistant position Robin turned down in Cuckoo’s Calling to stay on at Strike’s? In his send-off to her then he said he imagined her working for a rich CEO in a swank office. Perhaps she refuses to go back to being his junior partner (or he won’t have her back after her decisions at the end of Career counter his direction which led him to fire her). No doubt, if this is the case, she will become involved with a murder case at the office and do her best to solve it on her own — or maybe with the black woman police officer we met in Career whom Rowling has said plays a larger role in Lethal White.

As interesting as all that may be, the treasure of the publicity releases was an interview with the BBC, clearly staged (the film clips from it released yesterday had full noir production effects, everything but green screen CGI and dry ice smoke, about as spontaneous and off the cuff as Japanese tea ceremony). Nonetheless, Rowling said some things that were of immediate interest to her more serious readers.

Most notably, she talked about her relationship with the “rules of the detective mystery genre:

Were you ever inspired by some of the classic detectives that we know, or did you think you’d actively avoid that?
J.K. Rowling:
 Part of the appeal and part of the fascination of the genre is that it has clear rules. I’m intrigued by those rules and I like playing with them. Your detective should always lay out the information fairly for the reader, but he will always be ahead of the game. There are certain immutable laws of detective fiction that I follow.

But in terms of creating a character, I think he conforms to certain universal rules but he is very much of this time. He is a veteran of wars that many people still re-run politically and talk about. He’s a complex character because he’s rooted partly in the military and partly in the very louche world that a lot of people would like to enter without really understanding how damaging that world can be. He is unique as I think every detective should be, but he’s rightly conforming to the rules of detective fiction that make detective fiction fair for the reader.

The only “universal rules,” “clear” and capable of “playing with” as they may be, which she mentions are about being “fair” to the reader with respect to giving them the information they need to solve the case alongside the detective. Those of us who missed the clue in Career about the specific season a particular sea vegetable, one native to Cornwall, flowers might object to how “fair” it is to have an engaging case be solved on that obscure a detail, but the detail of a flowering sea vegetable at a specific date was shared…

The case that Rowling essentially writes these interviews, her answers as well as  the questions, a la Nabokov, rests on the absence of follow-up questions to assertions like the above. “He conforms to the ‘fairness doctrine’ rules, great. Which rules are the ones you like playing with?”

Oddly enough, it seems she answered that a long time ago. In 2005 at the Anelli-Spartz interview, she said:

There’s a theory — this applies to detective novels, and then Harry, which is not really a detective novel, but it feels like one sometimes — that you should not have romantic intrigue in a detective book. Dorothy L. Sayers, who is queen of the genre, said — and then broke her own rule, but said — that there is no place for romance in a detective story except that it can be useful to camouflage other people’s motives. That’s true; it is a very useful trick. I’ve used that on Percy and I’ve used that to a degree on Tonks in this book, as a red herring. But having said that, I disagree inasmuch as mine are very character-driven books, and it’s so important, therefore, that we see these characters fall in love, which is a necessary part of life.

She revisits this idea in yesterday’s publication of the BBC interview package from which reports have been quoting selectively since the Premiere earlier this month. In a nutshell, the Cormoran Strike mysteries are the vehicle for the relationship story (we might say ‘romance’?) between Cormoran and Robin; they are the main event really and the murder to be solved the side-show:

With the detective theme, do you feel that we’ve slightly neglected that rather romantic world of the detective in recent years, because of change in technology or culture in the UK?

It is challenging to create a hero who is not in the police force. We’ve moved for excellent reasons, to heroes who are operating within the force. Because then you have access to all this amazing evidence and it’s credible. That’s what real life is like.

Having said that, private detectives do still exist and many of them have come out of the forces. You find a lot of people in close protection and detective work are ex-SIB as Strike is, or ex Police. It’s an interesting world. You get to focus far more on the individual, it’s much more small scale.

Because I had this idea for this relationship between this man and this woman, that was the world it had to be in. If I’d placed them both on the police force, the dynamic between them would have been entirely different.

I wanted to explore a far smaller scale, human operation and a far more personal relationship.

Strike has the job he has, at the small scale that it is, because she “had this idea for this relationship” that required the simplicity of a private office. The detective agency is just the stage in the end on which Cormoran and Robin will come to terms romantically or professionally or both.

What are the “rules” she mentions beyond the ‘no romance’ clause in the contract twixt reader and writer that Rowling says Sayers breaks?

Sayers’ fame today as during her life rests chiefly on her detective fiction, though it includes only ten Wimsey novels, two collections of stories, and her work with the Detection Club. The detective writers’ equivalent of the more celebrated Inklings, the Detection Club had members who were the brighter lights of the age, to include G. K. Chesterton, the club’s first president, and Agatha Christie, president for twenty years. Sayers was a founding member and a Club president, too, from 1949 to 1957, and it was in this role that Ms. Rowling probably thinks of Sayers as a Detection rule-maker.

The Detection Club’s rules, about which they swore an oath at their induction that is supposed to have been written by Sayers herself, are the definition of the classical formula. These rules as written up in 1928 by Willard Huntington Wright (a.k.a. S. S. Van Dyne), the author of the Philo Vance mysteries which are my personal favorites of this genre, are usually accepted as canonical. They prohibit any concealing of essential clues, any servant murderers, or unimaginative mystery clichés like an unknown evil twin, the dog who does not bark, and “the bogus spiritualistic seance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away.”

Wright’s ideas of the detective fiction puzzle are essentially that it must be a fair puzzle and just about the puzzle. Hence:

A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action, and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.

Which, of course, means “no romance.” As Wright requires in Rule #3:

There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.[i]

Sayers’ most famous essay on detective fiction seems to back Huntington Wright to the hilt:

The instances in which the love-story is an integral part of the plot are extremely rare. One very beautiful example occurs in The Moonstone. Here the entire plot hangs on the love of two women for Franklin Blake. Both Rachel Verinder and Rosanna Spearman know that he took the diamond, and the whole mystery arises from their efforts to shield him. Their conduct is, in both cases, completely natural and right, and the characters are so finely conceived as to be entirely convincing. E.C. Bentley, in Trent’s Last Case, has dealt finely with the still harder problem of the detective in love. Trent’s love for Mrs. Manderson is a legitimate part of the plot; while it does not prevent him from drawing the proper conclusion from the evidence before him, it does prevent him from acting upon his conclusions, and so prepares the way for the real explanation. Incidentally, the love story is handled artistically and with persuasive emotion.

In The House of the Arrow, and, still more strikingly, in No Other Tiger, A.E. W. Mason has written stories of strong detective interest which at the same time have the convincing psychological structure of the novel of character. The characters are presented as a novelist presents them – romantically, it is true, but without that stark insistence on classifying and explaining which turns the persons of the ordinary detective-story into a collection of museum exhibits.

Apart from such unusual instances as these, the less love in a detective-story the better. “L’amuor au theatre,” says Racine, “ne peut pas etre en seconde place,” and this holds good of detective fiction. A casual and perfunctory love-story is worse than no love story at all, and, since the mystery must, by hypothesis, take the first place, the love is better left out.[ii]

Sayers, however, thinks that Collins is the model for good mystery writing and that the formula as proposed by Wright is ultimately “a literature without bowels” and the last thing she wanted to be writing:

When in a light-hearted manner I set out, fifteen years ago, to write the first “Lord Peter” book, it was with the avowed intentions of producing something “less like a conventional detective story and more like a novel.” Re-reading Whose Body? at this distance of time I observe, with regret, that it is conventional to the last degree, and no more like a novel than I to Hercules….

The ordinary beginner had to proceed with caution and to acquire technical facility in the process. During the next ten years the technique of detective fiction did improve out of all knowledge in the hands of a number of brilliant writers, and we all became a great deal more careful about our facts. Some of us, from time to time, even indulged in a little “good writing” here and there and were encouraged to find it well received.

We also took occasion to preach at every opportunity that if the detective story was to live and develop it must get back to where it began in the hands of Collins and Le Fanu, and become once more a novel of manners instead of a pure crossword puzzle. My voice was raised very loudly to proclaim this doctrine, because I still meant my books to develop along those lines at all costs and it does no harm to let one’s theory act as a herald to one’s practice.

Some people did not agree with us. Mr. Willard Huntington Wright (Van Dine) still believes, for example, that every vestige of humanity should be ruthlessly expunged from the detective novel; but I am sure he is wrong and we are right. It is not only that the reader gets tired after a time of a literature without bowels; in the end the writer gets tired of it too, and that is fatal.[iii]

She prefaced her Wimsey play, Busman’s Honeymoon, consequently, with this apology for its romantic interest:

It has been said, by myself and others, that a love interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story. But to the characters involved, the detective intrusion might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love-story. This book deals with such a situation. It also provides some sort of answer to many kindly inquiries as to how Lord Peter and his Harriet solved their matrimonial problem. If there is but a ha’porth of detection to an intolerable deal of saccharine, let the occasion be the excuse. [iv]

Ms. Rowling is correct in saying that Dorothy Sayers breaks the “no romance in detective fiction” rule but not in saying that she “broke her own rule.” Sayers’ “own rule” was to claim exemption from the Detection Club’s rule. And this is no small thing because Ms. Rowling breaks this rule for precisely the same reason as Sayers did: for the sake of full blooded characters rather than cardboard cutouts or Clue board game figurines. Sayers is known, in fact, as a “character-driven” mystery writer and that this is what distinguishes her from the more formulaic ‘whodunnit’ writers of the Golden Age, like Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr.

Yesterday we talked about Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour as model of the books’ Menippean satire and Dickensian echoes. Today I’m asking you to think of “Lord Peter and his Harriet” as Rowling’s possible exemplars for Cormoran and Robin, not in the sense that the characters resemble one another in any way (beyond the shared trauma of war on the men’s part?) but the mysteries they’re solving are not the point of the books; their relationship is.

Your thoughts?

[i] Willard Huntington Wright, ‘Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Fiction,’ first published in the American Magazine for September 1928 and was subsequently incorporated in the omnibus Philo Vance Murder Cases (1936).; cited by David Stroud at

[ii] Dorothy Sayers, ‘The Omnibus of Crime,’ Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror (1928) reprinted in The Art of the Mystery Story, Carroll & Graf, 1992 ( p. 104).

[iii]  Dorothy Sayers, ‘Gaudy Night,’ originally published in Titles to Fame (1937, ed., Denys Roberts), reprinted in The Art of the Mystery Story op.cit (pp.208-209), cf.,; cited by David Stroud at

[iv] Dorothy Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon, cited in Barbara Reynolds’ Dorothy Sayers: Her Life and Soul (St. Martin’s, 1993), p. 270; thank you to Robert Trexler, editor of CSL, for this find.



  1. Eduardo Huerta Vazquez says

    I just want to know if Rowling is going to write one book every year once Lethal White is published, because she told Tom Burke that she has 10 books more, and teevee shows are made every year, hence my wondering… Another question I have is: Are they going to film lethal white in one season, or are they going to wait for the publication of two more books to do it? If so, there’s going to be a new season every 4 years… (

  2. She has pledged a Cormoran Strike novel and Fantastic Beasts screenplay every other year in alternating years. She also said earlier this year that she would publish two novels this year.

    That’s all we’ve got!

  3. After giving it some thought, I almost think both elements discussed by both Wright and Rowling need to be put into some kind of perspective. I think Wright is focused on the main plot point that is just one of the Detective Novel’s main reason for existing, and yet he seems to have a some strange hang up about using a Romantic element in the proceedings. Also, can’t a detective story revolve around theft? How about kidnapping. I remember hearing this old radio program called “Mr. Keen: Tracer of Lost Persons”, or something like that. The point is that crime, in all its variety, is the main driving engine of Noir.

    Rowling, on the other hand, is merely doing both what she knows, likes, and has more or less always done. In that regard, there’s little to apologize for. However, I’ve seen no proof that she doesn’t treat the other mechanics of her Strike stories as any less important than the character relationships. She may have a knack for writing stories in an Austenesque vein, yet she’s also a fan of characters like Lord Wimsey, it seems.

    I think the Strike books, or any work of Detective Fiction, needs to be seen in a more, organic whole, rather than a singular focus on just the parts that make it up.

    That said, I can perfectly understand the need to examine the elements that go together to make up a Noir story, if they should prove of critical-aesthetic importance to an understanding of the work.

  4. Dolores Gordon-Smith says

    I’m a bit wary of getting hung up on rules. Ronald Knox, who wrote the Detectives Decalogue, had his tongue very firmly in his cheek unlike Van Dyne who seems to have been deadly serious. And why not have romance in a detective story? It seems very arbitrary to exclude it. I happily use romance in my detective stories whenever I see fit.

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