J. J. Marsh’s ‘Behind Closed Doors:’ Did Cormoran Strike Begin as a Bet that Rowling Made with Two Old Friends?

Rowling tweeted last month that “one of my best friends, who lives in Spain,” had sent her a video of an accomplished guitarist.

I asked Nick Jeffery who this “best friend” of Rowling might be and he, as always, had a good guess:

My guess (and it is a guess) is Aine Kiely, one of the Godmothers of Swing from the Prisoner of Azkaban dedication. She fits the bill as ‘one of her oldest friends’ and is currently working and living in Spain. The other Godmother of Swing, Jill Prewett, writes detective fiction under the name J J Marsh and lives in Switzerland. Both have holidayed with JKR in recent years.

I was struck by Nick’s aside that one of Rowling’s oldest and dearest friends writes detective fiction. I had read Prewett-Marsh’s 2013 interview with Rowling, one of the best, but hadn’t known the journalist here was a writer, too. I see now that Rowling mentions Ngaio Marsh twice in that very bookish discussion, the most frequently cited interview, I think, in our list of Rowling references to books and authors she likes.

I ordered, consequently, an omnibus or Box Set edition of J. J. Marsh’s first three Beatrice Stubbs novels: Behind Closed Doors, Raw Material, and Tread Softly. My thought was to check if these books, written by Jill Prewett and published at the same time as Rowling-Galbraith was planning and writing the Strike series, had any obvious over-laps with the more famous Cuckoo’s Calling and subsequent four books.

I read the first Stubbs book, Behind Closed Doors, last weekend and think there may indeed be a connection, a fun one.

Three notes before I connect those dots, all after the jump:

First, the dates. The first Stubbs novel is published in April 2012 (Amazon in the US and UK says it was December 2013, buGoodReads has the earlier date). Casual Vacancy, Rowling’s first post Potter publication, appears in September 2012, and Cuckoo’s Calling was published under her Galbraith pseudonym in April 2013. Both friends chose to write their first detective fictions under aliases and semi-privately (see point two). Both are books that begin a series, albeit the Stubbs novels are more like Da Vinci Code thrillers in being international blockbuster formula pieces or just P. D. James-esque novels, that is, stand-alones with a minimal roll-over cast and relation between books. That these two Porto Pals, who still vacation together with Aine Kiely according to Mr Jeffery, were planning and writing a series of books of mysteries at the same time is not necessarily meaningful but certainly suggestive.

Second, just who is Prewett-Marsh?

For one thing, she seems to be self-publishing her work. The first Stubbs books were published by Prewett Publishing, now Prewett-Bielmana company whose website describes itself as a “Publishing and Consulting firm.” The Publishing wing of the company is described as “eBook, paperback and audiobook production and publishing” with “author marketing,” the only link provided being one to jjmarshauthor.com. I suspect the ‘Bielman’ part of the company which does the “consulting” with businesses largely around project management and IT issues is her and her husband’s day-job business that pays their bills but hope Nick Jeffery can help get us real answers there.

The ‘About’ page on Marsh’s author website is not very helpful; an old GoodReads bio blurb from 2012 is more revealing. This woman is Rowling’s clone or twin-separated-at-birth in being consumed by books and words:

As a child, Jill read so obsessively she got kicked out of the school library. But her passion for words continued. She graduated in English Literature and Theatre Studies from the University of Wales and set up a theatre company. Since then, as an actor, director, teacher, writer and journalist, she’s worked in fifteen countries. She learnt something from each one. 

Now, with her husband and three dogs, Jill lives in Switzerland, a country with four languages and mountains of new words.

She works as a language trainer all over Europe, collaborates with Nuance Words and Triskele Books, and contributes regularly to Words with JAM magazine. But most of the time, she writes. And reads.

Behind Closed Doors is the first Beatrice Stubbs novel, a European crime series set in compelling locations all over the Continent.

She has a LinkedIn page as ‘Jill Marsh’ a mash of ‘Jill Prewett’ and ‘JJ Marsh’ but does not welcome connections, only followers. She describes herself there as the ‘Co-founder of Triskele Booksrather than as an author and the picture suggests it is an abandoned social media effort (she has jet black hair in the cameo and is now all white or what used to be called ‘gray hair’). I’m not sure what connection she has with Triskele today, living as she does in Zurich (Schuetzenwies 5, 8926 Kappel am Albis), but she lists the UK Medieval Heritage operation and its publishing wing as a continuing concern. She claims polyglot status with the ability to speak French, German, and Portuguese in addition to English.

Prewett-Marsh is very active on Twitter as @JJMarsh1 and her liberal politics are front and center especially with regard to feminism (cf., her tweets and retweets celebrating prenatal infanticidefeminist bookstores, and women authors galore, to include Rowling-Galbraith). Unlike her most famous friend, she follows more people than she has followers and posts on her small platform almost on a daily basis.

More interesting perhaps and most revealing of all is that she writes frequent posts on the weblog page of her website. I found an interesting post there, her most recent, echoing an interview she had done years ago, that described the imaginative and creative process of writing as being akin to the working of a “compost heap.” The question now is, was this her thought that Rowling used as a young writer or is Marsh quoting her more famous friend?

Third, the name ‘J. J. Marsh.’

A simple Google search of the name reveals a famous body builder and a Swedish guitarist with this exact name. The body builder link is an interesting possibility we’ll return to as something of an inside joke but there is a third Marsh name-source that is more likely as a source than the Schwarzenegger era Mr Universe and the contemporary lute strummer.

If she had chosen the name Christie, Sayers, or Allingham as her pseudonym, I think we would consider it an obvious hat-tip to one of those queens of detective fiction. Is it outlandish, then, to think that she, who like her chosen namesake has a background in ‘Theater Studies’ and drama groups, chose ‘Marsh’ as a pointer to Ngaio Marsh?

I don’t think so, though, again, the one J. J. Marsh book I have read does not seem like a Ngaio Marsh wanna-be’s effort; it’s much more akin to Dan Brown and his ‘Blockbuster Novel’ formula efforts, though Beatrice Stubbs like Ngaio’s Roderick Alleyn is on “secondment” as often as not. Thanks to Nick’s detective work with Rowling’s bookshelves (about which findings I hope he will post) and the book posted at Robert-Galbraith.com, Off With His Head, we know Rowling-Galbraith is a Ngaio Marsh reader, too.

The J. J.  Marsh name, too, for Jill Prewett has obvious resonance with ‘J. K. Rowling,’ Joanne Rowling Murray’s first alias. There are the two initials that obscure her sex, the first ‘J’ being her actual first initial, and her use of Jill, her real first name, with the alias last name Marsh on LinkedIn and occasionally at her weblog. That the name is one made famous by a monster body builder might be a playful pointer to the elephant in Prewett-Marsh’s writing room, her buddy from the 90’s, the celebrity-author-goliath Presence.

That’s necessary backdrop for my tentative theory after reading the first Stubbs novel, Behind Closed Doors, a theory I’ll offer for your consideration and probable dismissal as at best a remote possibility after I share three thoughts on the first book. 

Three Point Book Review: Behind Closed Doors

One, for a first effort Closed Doors is quite good, a real page-turner. I like Beatrice Stubbs, Marsh’s Metropolitan Police DI, and I admire the slow-release of information about her as the novel progresses (we’re still very much in the dark about her past and her mental condition at story’s end so the book was definitely meant as an opening to a series rather than a one-off). I care enough about her and the hints we get of her life back in the UK that I’ll probably read the next book.

Two, I say “probably” because Marsh really needed a good editor with Behind Closed Doors. The book is well-structured in sharing the murder stories — there are five or six with more than one failed attempt — as chapters throughout the book rather than all at once. The reveal scene, however, is so sudden and the confession therein so out of character that I confess to reading it several times while wondering, “What was she thinking? How could a book so well planned come apart this way in the end?”

And there is a Gaffe for the Ages in the story as told. The critical clues left at the crime scenes by the murderer to distract investigators quite literally is a nonsensical plot point. Without the murderer leaving DNA evidence behind intentionally (supposedly to hide the assassin’s sex), the meticulously executed murders would have been ruled suicides and never been connected as being done by the same person. This unexplained, obvious, and, to this reader at least, inexplicably unforced Flint by the story’s supposed criminal genius all but ruins the mystery. An editor or friendly reader would have caught that and sent her back to the drawing board.

The title, too, has absolutely nothing to do with the story that I can figure out. Was Behind Closed Doors chosen because it suggests bedroom action? The murders are all honey-pot traps, so that works, sort of, but it’s such a stretch that the title-story disconnect remains a head-shaker.

All these failings are downfalls, I have to think, of self-publishing. She needed Louise Freeman as her Beta Reader as much as Rowling-Galbraith does. Or an editor committed to shielding the author from embarrassing mistakes.

Third, Behind Closed Doors is by a woman, about women, and primarily for women readers — and politically liberal women, at that. If the adoption of the pseudonym ‘J. J. Marsh’ was meant a la ‘J. K. Rowling’ to disguise the sex of the author — again, maybe she did know about the body builder! — it’s a fail. The men in the story are cartoon villains, horny boys, or uptight Swiss; the women are vibrant, three-dimensional, and like-able, to include even the neurotic bad-gal black hats. No surprise at the finish to learn that the two women on the EU All Star Detection Squad that Stubbs leads turn out to be gay (apologies for the spoiler, but that reveal is offered entirely as a gratuitous aside in the closing pages in what seems a showy demonstration of the author’s liberated, progressive views: “Boys Drool, Lesbians Rule!”).

Which brings us to the correspondences with the Strike novels. Beyond the murders staged as suicides, I mean. 

The story twist at the close, forgive me, one that sort of spoils the finish for readers who haven’t read the book, is the most interesting for Serious Strikers. It turns out that an important character is a transgender woman — and that her transition was forced upon her as a child by the evil adoptive mother who didn’t want a son. This boy-to-girl switch is not presented as a ‘plus;’ the transgender character is unhappy, socially retarded, and at once brilliant and mentally unstable. The transition reveal makes it very clear that the making of a woman out of a man is to be considered something of a Frankenstein event, the product of a deranged woman’s self-importance rather than anything ‘natural’ or ‘healing’ for the young person.

That echoing with Rowling-Murray’s Twitter-induced nightmare 2020, The Year of the Transphobe, is another coincidence or suggestive parallel between the two authors and series.

Here’s my fun theory, then, about Jill Prewett-Marsh and Jo Rowling-Galbraith, as promised. It’s unlikely but conceivable that the Cormoran Strike mystery series began as a bet between two friends on vacation. Imagine this:

Rowling, Prewett, and Kiely are on vacation somewhere exotic — let’s say the Himalayas, visiting soon-to-retire Ron Weasley (aka Colonel Sean Harris, OBE) at his last duty station in Nepal — after the publication of Deathly Hallows circa 2008 or 2009. Rowling is a world famous celebrity and her two friends are only known to the public at large because of the ‘Godmothers of Swing’ dedication in Prisoner. Polyglot and precocious reader Prewett has done relatively well for herself in her business career and in her marriage but secretly longs to write detective fiction and play with words for a living.

Kiely jokes with her two friends over drinks in their faux Tibetan chalet (they’re in Nepal) that Prewett and Murray should have a competition as Mystery Thriller Writer wanna-bes, a contest she will judge. To make it fair, the authors have to write under pseudonyms, i.e., Murray cannot write as ‘J. K. Rowling’ which would guarantee her book’s instant success and best seller status. To make the contest something in which Kiely can reasonably judge winner and loser, too, the books being written both have to feature a woman detective and explore male-female roles and gender issues, to include transgenderism. Murder-seeming-to-be-suicide has to be the first book’s secret-to-be-revealed.

It’s a bet. Murray-Rowling has the advantage of having an agent to front her Robert Galbraith persona so Bad Bob gets a top flight editor (not that he caught the gaffes that mar the otherwise brilliant Cuckoo’s Calling). She also has the head-start of already having written more than seven novels; Prewett-Marsh, though a serious student of what makes stories work and a master of word play in four languages, is a beginner. Not to mention she has to self-publish and go without editorial critique and revision.

Who is winning? My guess is that you were unaware of the Beatrice Stubbs books until today. We don’t know the actual terms of the bet, however, so on points adjusted for handicapping maybe Kiely’s scorecard has Prewett-Marsh in the lead. If JJM scores by writing a book or more a year, the underdog is crushing The Presence. She’s written twelve Stubbs books and three others.

The Stubbs books sell fairly well, too, I guess, though she continues to self-publish her work in straight-to-paperback editions that I suspect are only sold online (this print-on-demand practice for Amazon and others avoids the financially ruinous experience of returned unsold books from brick and mortar stores). If the bet is somehow handicapped — every Stubbs novel sold counts as the equivalent of a thousand or ten thousand Strike sales? — she might be in the running or even in the lead.

Still, I have to think Rowling-Galbraith is winning the bet. Not only is she crushing Marsh with her exploration of sexual identity issues, but she is embedding a rewrite and commentary on her Potter novels at the same time she is taking the art of literary allusion to new frontiers. It’s too bad that Marsh wasn’t competing with Dan Brown; I think she’s at least as good at the blockbuster international thriller step-by-step novel as he is. Though it would help Stubbs’ handicapped sales numbers, Rowling should still urge her Hollywood buddies to pick up her friend’s series as a movie franchise or film it herself at Bronte Studios for teevee.

Then again, imagine the blowback from the Twitterati about Behind Closed Doors‘ transgender character if they did. Not pretty. This might put Prewett-Marsh into the Hell reserved for J. K. Rowling and Bari Weiss.

I may read the next two novels in the omnibus edition I have purchased just to see if what I think of as the ‘Swingers Bet Theory’ above, a wager made at high altitude if not close to heaven, is supported by more feminist and progressive moralizing in the second and third Stubbs books. Maybe I’ll read it while on break at work.

Let me know what you think, especially if you’ve read one, some, or all of J. J. Marsh’s work!


Speak Your Mind