It's a detective story — about a detective story. The book in question is The Cuckoo's Calling, a debut novel released earlier this year by a former British military man named Robert Galbraith.
The reviews were excellent — especially for a first novel. There was just one hitch: The Cuckoo's Calling wasn't a debut at all. Nor was it by Robert Galbraith. As The Sunday Times revealed this weekend, Galbraith is a pseudonym for one of the best-known writers working today: Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling.
Times arts editor Richard Brooks helped unravel the mystery. He tells NPR's Audie Cornish that it all started with his colleague, India Knight, who was reading the book and tweeted about how good it was, especially for a debut. "A very interesting reply came back, which said, it's not a debut novel, it's by an existing author. So India Knight tweeted back and said, 'Who?' And a very straightforward, simple reply came back: 'J.K. Rowling,' " Brooks says. And then the mysterious tweeter disappeared, "rather like a Harry Potter spell. Gone. No trace!"
Brooks says he was skeptical at first. "But then I started doing a little investigation of my own." It turned out that Galbraith shared the same literary agency as Rowling. And, mysteriously, there was no picture of Galbraith on the agency website. "Just a silhouette. Black silhouette. I was suspicious." Brooks' suspicions only grew when he discovered that the two authors shared a publisher as well.
Then, he sent the book to two linguistic analysts who compared it to Rowling's other work. "Both said that this book, The Cuckoo's Calling, had similarities in the style of writing, the words that were used, punctuation, to J.K. Rowling's book."
Initially, Brooks says, he played a "cat and mouse game" with the publisher. "I ... went to them and said I'd been reading this Cuckoo's Calling, and I didn't think it was actually written by this guy Robert Galbraith. I said, 'Who is he? Can I interview him?' And they came back and said, 'Sorry, no.' So I put a very, very direct question: Is it Rowling?"
So, is it all a public relations stunt? "Of course I'm aware of it," Brooks says. "That original tweet, perhaps, might have been from Rowling herself — who knows — who wanted to be outed. Who knows?"
Rowling's last book, The Casual Vacancy, was not particularly well-received, Brooks notes. "And that's why, partly, I think, she did it under a pseudonym, because she was wary about more disappointing reviews. Having got the good ones, did she out herself deliberately? Who knows?"
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
And now, a detective story about a detective story. It begins with a new novel called "The Cuckoo's Calling," written by a former British military investigator named Robert Galbraith. The reviews were excellent, especially for a debut novel, only The Sunday Times revealed this weekend that the book wasn't a debut at all, and that Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for one of the best-known writers working today: J.K. Rowling, the wizard behind Harry Potter. Richard Brooks uncovered the truth and joins me now. Welcome to the program.
RICHARD BROOKS: Thank you very much.
CORNISH: So I understand this started with a tip from Twitter. What did it say?
BROOKS: Well, one of my colleagues, India Knight, she'd been reading this book, "The Cuckoo's Calling," and she tweeted that it was a really good book. She didn't explain that much, just said it was a really good debut novel. And a few people came back saying I agree. But a very interesting reply came back which said: It's not a debut novel. It's by an existing author.
So India Knight tweeted back and said, who? And a very straightforward simple reply came back: J.K. Rowling. Then when India Knight tried to go back yet again, the contact, the tweet, it evaporated rather like a Harry Potter spell. Gone, no trace.
CORNISH: So they had, like, deleted the account or something?
BROOKS: Absolutely deleted the account.
CORNISH: So you had to have been skeptical?
BROOKS: Well, I was skeptical. But then I started doing a little investigation on my own. I went straight online, looked up Robert Galbraith and found that he was with the literary agency called The Blair Partnership, a fairly new agency, but had one very major client, yes, J.K. Rowling - not many others - and this man, Galbraith.
Mysteriously, there was no picture of Galbraith, just a silhouette, black silhouette. I was suspicious. Then I looked up the publisher. It was Sphere. Not a very big name in publishing. But you look more carefully, Sphere is part of Little, Brown. And key point: Rowling's last book, her first adult book, the "Casual Vacancy," had been published by, yes, Little, Brown.
CORNISH: So you followed the trail through the publishers, but you don't stop there, right? You actually sent the book to two linguistic analysts to compare the prose.
BROOKS: We sent, obviously, eBook copies of the book to two computer experts. And they ran through their computers this book, "Cuckoo's Calling," Rowling's last book, "Casual Vacancy," her last Harry Potter book and two other detective novels.
CORNISH: And what did they find?
BROOKS: Both said that this book, "The Cuckoo's Calling," had similarities in the style of writing, the words that were used, the punctuation, to J.K. Rowling's book.
CORNISH: So what happens when you reach out to the publisher?
BROOKS: Initially, I played a cat and mouse game with the publisher. I initially went to them and said, I'd been reading this "Cuckoo's Calling," and I didn't think it was actually written by this guy, Robert Galbraith. I said, who is he? Can I interview him? And they came back and said, sorry, no. So I put a very, very direct question: Is it Rowling?
CORNISH: You know, the cynical view here would be that this is all part of a masterful PR campaign by the publisher, right? I mean, Rowling gets a fair shake from the critics.
BROOKS: Yeah. Yeah.
CORNISH: And the publisher, you know, gets its sales, right? Sales are up for this book.
BROOKS: No, of course, I'm aware of that. I'm increasingly aware of it today. Perhaps that original tweet, perhaps, might have been from Rowling herself, who knows, who wanted to be outed? Who knows?
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Richard Brooks, it seems like this is a reminder that the author biographies that publishers put out, they might also be fiction.
BROOKS: Yeah. I mean, you know, she's obviously not the first writer to write under a pseudonym. And the most famous one is, of course, Stephen King in the 1980s. Other writers use different names, like the detective writer Ruth Rendell also writes books under another name, Barbara Vine. But she says she's Barbara Vine. You know, she's not pretending to be someone else.
But I think the nearest analogy to this one is Stephen King of a writer who rally wanted to try something else under a different name and wanted to see what happened when the book was published. I mean, I, you know, Rowling must have been really happy to get good reviews. It must be rather frustrating to sit back, get great reviews because her last book, "Casual Vacancy," did not get great reviews.
And that's why partly, I think, she did it under a pseudonym because she was wary about more disappointing reviews. Having got the good ones, did she out herself deliberately? Who knows?
CORNISH: Richard Brooks is the arts editor for the Sunday Times. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.