There’s a minor controversy concerning J.K. Rowling which doesn’t have anything to do with transsexuals: the overuse of Harry Potter metaphors to explain politics. Anyone who’s logged onto Twitter in the past decade or so should have noticed the constant references to certain politicians as Voldemort, comparisons between political parties and Hogwarts Houses, and criticisms of the Federal government crouched in analogies involving the Ministry of Magic. The perpetrators are predominantly centrist Democrats, and a phrase has been coined to oppose them: “Read another book!”
You can’t blame the critics. A popular children’s fantasy series probably isn’t the most cogent lens through which to interpret contemporary politics, distorting more than it reveals and offering more opportunity to project than to reflect. But with that said, it’s surely revealing about the nature of the books themselves that so many people find in them the language to express their opinions, political or otherwise. It isn’t simply that people grew up with the Harry Potter series—Millennials also grew up with Rocco’s Modern Life and Myst, after all—but that Rowling’s series strikes just the right balance between myth, fantasy, and psychological realism that it expresses something essential about the psyche of the average person. This is the strength of Rowling’s art and the reason why so many “normies” have the instinct to apply her plots as templates for the narratives of their own lives. They already sense their own interiority dimly reflected within the heroics of the story, so why wouldn’t the plot express the inner workings of other events and people as well?
We can learn something about Rowling’s trans controversies by looking at them through this lens. The story, such as it is, began back in 2019 when Rowling tweeted support for Maya Forstater, a British woman who was fired from her job at the Center for Global Development for being critical of trans ideology. But the backlash itself didn’t reach full force until this past Summer, when Rowling tweeted in response to an oddly-worded opinion piece: “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” In response, many of the actors who made their own millions off of Rowling’s series turned their back on her. They did not return their paychecks. In response to their vitriol, Rowling wrote a nuanced and even-headed essay in which she contextualized her dismissal of the most exuberant overreaches of trans ideology in terms of her own experiences with domestic abuse. “When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman,” Rowling wrote in the essay, “… then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside.” Her plea for the protection of women-only spaces was accompanied by a call for the respect and protection of trans people, but it didn’t matter. Not only did so many of the actors who starred in her films criticize Rowling, but she also received numerous death and rape threats. In August, she returned her Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award after being accused of “attacks on the transgender community” by Kerry Kennedy. Rowling was reportedly saddened but concluded that the award was not reason for her to “forfeit the right to follow the dictates” of her conscience.
Rowling is not a culture warrior. She doesn’t seek out social media skirmishes or make her bread and butter reacting to whatever the latest controversy is. Her bread and butter are already made, and, in fact, as a multi-millionaire she’s beholden to no one. Combine this vast and hard-earned wealth with her eminently normal outlook on the world and you have someone who isn’t afraid to tweet what everyone (mostly) else is thinking. She’s the un-cancellable normie, and this is really the reason for the enmity towards her. That she believes the same things most people do is also the source of her strength as a writer. Sex is a biological fact. Family is the source of so much of our strength. Evil is real and we have a moral imperative to stand up to it. These are all beliefs which form the foundations of Harry Potter, of course, but they’re also what makes Rowling such a wonderful crime writer.
Finding a Place
Although crime fiction itself must surely have arisen alongside every other fictive genre, the detective story has more contemporary origins as a subgenre. Characters in Voltaire and E.T.A. Hoffmann helped police solve crimes, but it wasn’t until Poe published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841 that the detective story truly came into its own. Besides giving us the richness of a character such as detective C. Auguste Dupin, Poe set the stage for the detective story as a small model of cosmological struggle against evil. This struggle would go on to take many forms and play out in a variety of modes. For Poe, the struggle was metaphysical. In his “tales of ratiocination” as he called them, the unfolding of a crime wasn’t simply an exercise in naked logic, but something which involved the entire being of the detective—his thoughts, illusions, dreams, and fears—so that the protagonist is as much struggling to find their own place within a murky and threatening universe as simply trying to solve a crime. Closer to us in time, the detectives of the “golden age” of noir gave this same struggle a stoic coloring. Rowling as Robert Galbraith writes from within this same lineage, except her struggle is one for simple decency.
One would be hard pressed to find many characters more concerned with decency than Cormoran Strike. First appearing in 2013’s The Cuckoos Calling, Strike is a disabled (although he hides it well) veteran who served as a Royal Military Police Special Investigation Branch detective. He’s also the son of a debauched Baby Boomer rock star and a world-famous groupie. In the first book of what would become a (so far) five-book series, we find Strike on the professional and personal ropes. Deep in debt and struggling with the end of an unhealthy relationship, Strike takes on a case from wealthy John Bristow, who believes the death of his adoptive sister, officially ruled a suicide, was something more nefarious.
As Strike reluctantly dives into the case with his temp secretary Robin Ellacott, a few things quickly become obvious: Bristow’s deceased adoptive supermodel sister might not have died by her own hand and Cormoran Strike is a flawed but fundamentally good man. Sure, he smokes and drinks too much and his most important relationships are all fraught, at best. But whenever he’s put in the position of being forced to choose between a difficult good and an easy wrong, he always veers in the correct direction. This quality might have come from his personal experiences (investigator as soldier and civilian, amoral parents and a broken home), as Rowling explains in the novel, “Strike was used to playing archaeologist among the ruins of people’s traumatised memories…”. But as we reach the end of The Cuckoos Calling and Strike pegs his own piggy bank client, Bristow, for not just the murder of his sister, but of a couple other murders meant to cover up the faked suicide, it’s plainly obvious that Strike has a deep hunger for justice even at the risk of great financial loss. And this is the sentiment animating Rowling’s story: the good, the decent, is always a struggle to attain. Evil is easy. “How easy it was,” she writes, “to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.”
The strongest book in the series might be the second, The Silkworm, which takes the same moral preoccupations as the first novel but applies them to book publishing. It begins when Strike is approached by a woman named Leonora Quine, the wife of notorious avant garde writer Owen Quine, asking the brooding detective to track Owen down after his disappearance. Owen is a sort of animal which doesn’t exist anymore—the enfant terrible literary artist who shocks decorum while racking up millions of dollars of sales. But Owen Quine has been down on his luck for a time, not quite able to recreate is former success. To Strike’s surprise, Owen Quine’s disappearance coincides with the leaking of the manuscript of his next work, a postmodern mishmash of cannibalism, rape, and torture called Bombyx Mori.
The missing person’s case eventually becomes a murder case when Owen’s dead body is discovered. I won’t spoil the mystery for you—it’s quite fun to experience it as it unfolds—but what Rowling seems to be sussing out in The Silkworm isn’t so much the irrationality of the human mind or the debauched nature of literary gruesomeness, but the ugliness of raw professional ambition. As Rowling has a writer explain to our protagonist, “…writers are a savage breed, Mr. Strike. If you want life-long friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels.”
Rooted in a love of the particular, of place (the Strike books could easily be read as a love letter to England), common morals, and decency, Rowling’s achievement is that she has created an art so informed by profound popular moral sentiments that people feel a collective ownership of her books.
Running parallel to the murder mystery in The Silkworm is Robin Ellacott’s struggle to achieve balance between her exciting and demanding job and her personal life with her fiancée. Obviously, these are all themes which Rowling herself was personally acquainted with—the nihilism and backbiting of professional writers, managing the household when your work feels larger than life—but I think she’s saying something a bit more profound here. I think Rowling is telling us that tempering ambition and greed with common decency is really at the root of our day-to-day morality. In each of these early stories, the perpetrators murder friends and family out of greed and ambition. The killers find themselves lords of their own private fiefdoms of illicit desire. Their lack of mediating decency severs them from the common world.
The Struggle Against Easy Evils
Perhaps it’s best to emphasize ambition as a subset of “desire gone wrong” in Rowling’s detective fiction. In 2015’s Career of Evil, wayward desire manifests as a grudge the so-called Shacklewell Ripper has against Strike. And in the follow-up Lethal White, that desire takes the familiar form of greed for an inheritance and the casual cruelty of animal abuse. But, once again, the real plot of these books is Strike and Robin’s struggle towards decency. An exchange between them is illustrative of Rowling’s focus here:
“Pretending you’re OK when you aren’t isn’t strength.”
“Well, that’s where you’re wrong,” Robin contradicted him. The champagne had fizzed on her tongue and seemed to give her courage even before it hit her brain. “Sometimes, acting as though you’re all right, makes you all right. Sometimes you’ve got to slap on a brave face and walk out into the world, and after a while it isn’t an act anymore, it’s who you are. If I’d waited to feel ready to leave my room after—you know,” she said, “I’d still be in there. I had to leave before I was ready.”
Strike’s initial line is well-intentioned enough. Out of kindness he merely wants Robin to communicate with him more clearly (and to be more honest with herself as well) about the PTSD she suffers from after a rape attempt. But in this exchange, it’s Robin’s job to remind Strike that sometimes the most decent thing to do is the morally elevated thing, despite its difficulty. She reminds Strike that decency is an obligation of a higher order than the “self-care” currently so popular among extremely online white women. In fact, Robin says that this moral obligation is itself more transformative than existential wound-licking. Even in the most recent, and bafflingly controversial, of the Strike series, Troubled Blood, the mystery itself feels almost more like an occasion for exploring this actually quite domestic struggle for decency. In the book, a woman who has been declared missing for nearly four decades is eventually discovered to have (spoiler alert) been murdered by a serial killer nurse. That’s the plot, but the actual message of the book is everything that I’ve mentioned so far. It’s really a struggle towards the kind of common decency which transforms us, often with gratitude. As Rowling writes in the book:
“But people who fundamentally change are rare, in my experience, because it’s bloody hard work compared to going on a march or waving a flag. Have we met a single person on this case who’s radically different to the person they were forty years ago?”
“I don’t know . . . I think I’ve changed,” said Robin, then felt embarrassed to have said it out loud.
Strike looked at her without smiling for the space it took him to chew and swallow a chip, then said,
“Yeah. But you’re exceptional, aren’t you?”
She is, but it’s an exceptionalism available to anyone who cares to struggle against easy evils.
Rowling chose to write under the name Robert Galbraith because she wanted her work to be judged on its own merit. The move is an admirable one, brave even, and before it came out that Galbraith was Rowling, her work received critical praise. After the secret came out, it sold well, too. The trans tweets won’t affect sales much, I’m sure. I doubt many people with septum piercings were reading Galbraith, and most people agree with Rowling anyways. And if her statements in support of the state of Israel ruffled European feathers, one doubts it will have much of an effect, besides positive, on her Anglo readership. One of the reasons why it’s so difficult to cancel Rowling is that she is indeed decent, and her decency is of the sort available to any person caught in the common struggle of doing good in a postlapsarian world.
But are the Strike books good? There are more criteria to judge whether a book is good or bad than are known under the sun. The Strike novels are not experimental. They don’t take structural or formal chances or strive to push literature in a new direction. This isn’t great MFA-program writing, either. The books aren’t sophisticated soap operas, as complacent and spiritually vacant as the minimalist interior of a Brooklyn apartment. But they are great popular writing, and as a popular art fall more into the same critical grouping as the Blues, mural painting, or, yes, the Harry Potter series. Rooted in a love of the particular, of place (the Strike books could easily be read as a love letter to England), common morals, and decency, Rowling’s achievement is that she has created an art so informed by profound popular moral sentiments that people feel a collective ownership of her books. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that people so often use the Harry Potter series to express their political values. To cancel Rowling would be to cancel ourselves. And this is exactly why she has a target on her back. It also happens to be her supreme achievement as an artist.