JK Rowling and the Disguise of Social Commentary

William Oliphant Hutchison's portrait of Dorothy L Sayers, whom JK Rowling considers a major influence.
William Oliphant Hutchison’s portrait of Dorothy L Sayers, whom JK Rowling considers a major influence.

The Guardian recently quoted JK Rowling’s claim that her pseudonymous detective series, written as Robert Galbraith and featuring Cormoran Strike, will ‘last longer than Harry Potter.’ These remarks, made at the Harrogate International Crime Festival, don’t interest me. Obviously, as a series it’s not going to be limited like the Potter bildungsroman. But, contrary to headlines, she said more:

I love crime. I’ve always loved it. I read a lot of it […] and I think the Harry Potter books in many ways are whodunnits in disguise. I enjoy [golden age detective fiction]. That’s very much what I was trying to do with these books – to [update the formula].

Whodunits in disguise. What an interesting concept. Of course, when it was announced in 2011 that Rowling was working on her first book for adults, I wasn’t the only one who expected a detective novel. Rebus creator Ian Rankin even published an essay explaining how the Potter novels closely resemble classic whodunits in structure, and that Rowling’s loyalties had to  lie this way. I wasn’t the only one surprised that The Casual Vacancy was not a whodunit, or unsurprised when Rowling was unmasked as crime-writer Robert Galbraith.

When I tweeted the above quote, an academic friend replied laconically:

 

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… and this got me thinking. I disagree with Sarah, who considers the Potter novels as works of detective fiction. At the same time I agree completely: in many ways, the two genres are not only structurally similar; they do the same things.

In Rowling’s/Galbraith’s fiction, there is always an evil: Lord Voldemort, the class system, a conspiracy. The enemy hides but exerts power, especially through unwitting complicity (journalists never fare well). Once the source of the threat has been unmasked, and a culprit expunged, the text closes and the formula has been satisfied. The threat may survive but there is, at least, temporary resolution. The same structure is true of, say, an Ellery Queen novel, but also of Susanne Collins’ young adult Hunger Games trilogy, James Herbert’s horror novel Ash, and most Mills & Boon romances.

Detective fiction’s structure, for Dorothy L. Sayers, is commendable in just one way: ‘[i]t possesses an Aristotelian perfection of beginning, middle, and end. A definite and single problem is set, worked out, and solved; its conclusion is not arbitrarily conditioned by marriage or death’ (catching a criminal is just as arbitrary, but never mind). Still, what does all this, and what do other similar formats, mask? Isn’t all genre writing an act of disguise? Isn’t it all covering some essential truth?

According to W.H. Auden, and many subsequent critics, the whodunit structure is about guilt. Once the problem has been solved, the reader is absolved of any guilt and baggage they bring to the text. They are transported back to Eden. But, as a character in Agatha Christie’s Crooked House points out, Eden lost the innocent and retained the serpent. Are we looking at it the wrong way?

Doesn’t the formula itself allow each text to say something unique? I’ve long been criticised by traditionalists for arguing that Christie was a major twentieth-century social commentator. I simply don’t understand, apparently, that she was interested in puzzles; that scenes and characters vary in her texts only enough to make them sell. Instead, I think the flip is true – in my research, I say that the stylised formulae of genre fiction allow contemporary concerns to be presented in unique and stylised ways. By orchestrating contemporary themes in terms of VICTIM, GUILTY, INNOCENT, COMPLICITY, RED HERRING, OBSTACLE, SOLUTION, whatever, the author says something about these themes. Making the unimpeachable narrator a murderer, or putting contemporary political rhetoric into a denouement scene modelled after Auschwitz, she smuggles a moral message in through the animating problem. Not vice versa.

Like detective fiction, children’s and young adult fiction offer artificial entertainment. As such, these genres make a masquerade of unique, provocative social commentary. Masquerade: the loudest disguise.

References

Auden, W.H. ‘The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the Detective Novel, by an Addict.’ Harper’s Magazine (May 1948), pp. 406-412. Print.

Christie, Agatha. Crooked House (London: Collins, 1949). Print.

—–. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (London: Collins, 1926). Print.

Godfrey, Hannah. ‘JK Rowling Says Crime Thriller Series will Run Longer than Harry Potter.’ Guardian (19 July 2014). Web. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/19/jk-rowling-crime-thriller-series-longer-harry-potter

Parker, Ian. ‘Mugglemarch: J.K. Rowling Writes an Realist Novel for Adults.’ New Yorker (1 October 2012). Web. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/10/01/mugglemarch

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (London: Bloomsbury, 2007). Print.

Sayers, Dorothy L. ‘Aristotle on Detective Fiction.’ In Robin W. Winks (ed.), Detective Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York: Phoenix, 1980), pp. 25-31. Print.