Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series is classic contemporary crime fiction from a master story-teller, rich in plot, characterisation and detail. Galbraith’s debut into crime fiction garnered acclaim amongst critics and crime fans alike. The first three novels The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013), The Silkworm (2014) and Career of Evil (2015) all topped the national and international bestseller lists and have been adapted for television, produced by Brontë Film and Television. The fourth in the series, Lethal White (2018), is out now.
Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym of J.K. Rowling, bestselling author of the Harry Potter series and The Casual Vacancy, a novel for adults. After Harry Potter, the author chose crime fiction for her next books, a genre she has always loved as a reader. She wanted to write a contemporary whodunit, with a credible back story.
J.K. Rowling’s original intention for writing as Robert Galbraith was for the books to be judged on their own merit, and to establish Galbraith as a well-regarded name in crime in its own right.
Now Robert Galbraith’s true identity is widely known, J.K. Rowling continues to write the crime series under the Galbraith pseudonym to keep the distinction from her other writing and so people will know what to expect from a Cormoran Strike novel.
With four books now in the series, which have you enjoyed writing the most so far? Do you have a favourite?
I’ve loved writing all the Strike books. The classic whodunit suits the way I plot, and requires a vast array of characters, whose invention I find endlessly satisfying.
In terms of pure enjoyment, I think Career of Evil would come out ahead of the rest, for rather mundane reasons: I didn’t have many interruptions and was able to bury myself in the book for long stretches, which is ideal.
Having said that, my favourite of the four published books is Lethal White, which really couldn’t have been trickier to write, partly because I had so much else going on (screenplays and a play), and partly because I’d chosen not only to create a labyrinthine plot, but also to weave in a lot of developments in Strike and Robin’s personal lives.
The titles are always intriguing. Without giving too much away, why is the latest called Lethal White?
Lethal White is the name of a fatal birth abnormality in horses, but I’ll leave it to readers to decide what other interpretations it could have in the context of this plot.
At the end of Career of Evil the reader is left wanting to know more about Strike and Robin’s relationship. Can you tell us anything about how it develops in Lethal White?
There are big developments in both their private lives, particularly Robin’s. The relationship between the detective partners is enormous fun to write because underneath a sound friendship there is so much that is unsaid and barely acknowledged. At the beginning of Lethal White, we see a very big step forward, in that both of them admit to themselves what they’re feeling in a very overwrought and stressful setting. The possibility of something more happening between a very intelligent, self-contained commitment-phobe and a woman who has accidentally become his closest friend and work partner is, I think, what draws readers back to the books. It’s certainly what keeps me writing them.
Although a series, the books do stand alone. How do you make them distinct?
I try to do a differently constructed plot every single time. It shouldn’t show too obviously, but that’s the challenge for me.
It’s not procedural. That’s interesting from a narrative point of view, because I get to create plots that are driven in different ways.
Cuckoo’s Calling, which is a cold case obviously, is probably the most procedural of all the novels that I’ve written. The plot does unfold with the investigation.
Silkworm is utterly different, because of the conceit of the novel within the novel.
Career of Evil is very different again, because you’re looking at three stories that interweave with Strike’s own.
Lethal White again is different, though some of the work is procedural, I can’t tell you much more without giving too much away.
It’s been widely reported you have seven Cormoran Strike novels planned. Is this correct?
It’s not, there are actually more than that. The beauty of writing these types of novels is that they each have their own discrete story, so the series is pretty open ended. It will run for as long as I have stories to tell.
Characters and setting
Why have you chosen a Private Investigator as the lead character and why a war veteran and amputee?
I wanted to write classical whodunits with a modern twist. A Private Investigator is invited in to different worlds. It gives me a way of using life experiences and exploring those worlds in depth.
I know a lot of people who have served in the armed forces and who have been kind enough to help with my research. I interviewed serving and ex-military people for as long as they would let me bother them. In fact, all my factual information came from military sources. One of these is from the SIB.
So, while Strike himself is entirely fictional, his career and the experiences he’s had are based on factual accounts of real soldiers. Making Strike a war veteran is both very plausible and exciting novelistically.
One of the reviews I treasured most (before Robert was unmasked) said that my hero faced his situation ‘with resolve, instead of clichéd self-destruction.’ I gave Strike many of the qualities of the military people to whom I am closest: strength of character, black humour, resilience and ingenuity.
Making him an amputee added another dimension, allowing me to show the day to day reality of living with a disability, which many war veterans are having to face these days. It’s something I personally witnessed with my mother, who had MS.
Can you tell us a bit more about Strike? Why did you choose to make him the character he is?
Strike is entirely imaginary. He was a very vivid character who came to me, the best way, he just walked into my head. Whilst he has a basis in several real-life ex-Forces people and veterans I’ve known, in the main he was my creation.
Apart from being an ex-military policeman, my hero is the illegitimate son of a very famous man whom he has only met twice. He’s damaged in certain ways, due to an upbringing that’s quite unusual. Strike gives me a way to talk in an objective, de-personalised way about the oddities that come with fame.
While in the army, Strike had the anonymity he craved; now that he has left, he runs into people who make a lot of assumptions about him based purely on his parentage. He’s a complex character because he’s rooted in the military and partly in the 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 it fair for the reader.
His surname came from a real (but deceased) man mentioned in a slim book about Cornwall.
And then there is Robin, Strike’s assistant. Their relationship is intriguing as it develops. Can you tell us more about her?
I think Robin is the most purely loveable character I’ve written. She is in deliberate contrast to Strike. She questions what they do a little more than he does and has a more emotional response to the cases. You need that foil for Strike, because he does keep things in his head much more.
She’s not a Watson in the sense that she’s also detecting and becomes a fully-fledged partner, but she still does conform to the classic notion of a Watson, because she still is all of us, asking Strike the questions that we’d all like to know because he’s always one step ahead of the game.
Unwillingly, really, Strike is being broken by this friendship. Robin initially finds him rather unattractive and unsympathetic, but soon starts to admire his work ethic and intelligence. Meanwhile Strike, aware of his susceptibility as a newly single and isolated man, is determined not to become over-fond or reliant on this helpful and undeniably sexy girl.
They are both carrying a lot of secrets when they meet, which weigh them down and they’re both close-lipped about what the central traumas of their lives have been. Over the course of the books they start to open up to each other. It’s a relationship for Strike, with Robin, unlike any he’s had before.
The dynamic between them is I think the thing that keeps people reading and it’s certainly the thing that keeps me writing.
Why are the Strike novels set in London? Why not Edinburgh, where you live?
The prosaic answer is that London is big enough to give Strike a lot of cases without tripping over Rebus, who I think has made Edinburgh his own. In fact, Strike did visit Edinburgh in Career of Evil, and we know his ex-girlfriend, Charlotte, is from Scotland, so I’m not ruling out further trips north of the border, but I never really had any doubts that the series would be London-based.
It’s a city that can support a multitude of fictional detectives, because of its size and variety. I also love the way it easily absorbs incomers.
Neither Strike nor Robin are London-born, though Strike spent large parts of his childhood there. I think the fact that they gravitated to London from the towns of their birth gives them something in common: a hinterland apart from their work, and places of escape and fond recollection that they have yet to show each other.
Writing as Robert Galbraith
Why have you chosen to write crime fiction?
I’ve always loved detective fiction, Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, Margery Allingham and PD James, I love them all.
Most of the Harry Potter stories are whodunits at heart (‘Order of the Phoenix’ is more of a why-did-he), but I had wanted to try the real thing for a long time. I wanted to have a go at writing a contemporary whodunit, with a credible back story.
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.
How do you manage two very different fictional worlds – Cormoran Strike and the Wizarding World?
I’ve never had any problem moving between fictional worlds, even if I’m working on them simultaneously. There can be a lot of hanging around waiting for notes on the draft of a movie script, so I like to have a novel on the go in the background.
I envision the different fictional worlds as different rooms to which I have access. At worst, when entering one of the rooms, I have to spend a bit of time re-orientating myself, finding my bearings again, checking what I’ve put in which drawers.
However, they’re discrete places in my head, and the moment I re-enter one of the worlds, the characters are as fully real to me as when I left them. Cormoran Strike has never reached for a magic wand, and Newt Scamander doesn’t limp or drink Doom Bar.
Was it always your idea to write under a pseudonym for these books?
Yes, I really wanted to go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre, to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback. I wanted it to be just about the writing. It was a fantastic experience and I only wish it could have gone on a little longer than it did. I was grateful at the time for all the feedback from publishers and readers, and for some great reviews. Being Robert Galbraith was all about the work, which is my favourite part of being a writer.
Since my cover has been blown, I continue to write as Robert to keep the distinction from other writing and because I rather enjoy having another persona.
Why have you chosen to write these books under a male pseudonym? Does it influence your writing in any way?
I certainly wanted to take my writing persona as far away as possible from me, so a male pseudonym seemed a good idea. It doesn’t consciously change the way I write. I think I write differently, because it’s a very different genre.
Why the name Robert Galbraith? Do you have anything to say to all those Robert Galbraiths out there?
I can only hope all the real Robert Galbraiths out there will be as forgiving as the real Harry Potters have been. I must say, I don’t think their plight is quite as embarrassing.
I chose Robert because it’s one of my favourite men’s names, because Robert F Kennedy is my hero and because, mercifully, I hadn’t used it for any of the characters in the Potter series or The Casual Vacancy.
Galbraith came about for a slightly odd reason. When I was a child, I really wanted to be called ‘Ella Galbraith’, and I’ve no idea why. I don’t even know how I knew that the surname existed, because I can’t remember ever meeting anyone with it. Be that as it may, the name had a fascination for me. I actually considered calling myself L A Galbraith for the Strike series, but for fairly obvious reasons decided that initials were a bad idea.
Odder still, there was a well-known economist called J K Galbraith, something I only remembered by the time it was far too late. I was completely paranoid that people might take this as a clue and land at my real identity, but thankfully nobody was looking that deeply at the author’s name.
Why did you decide for the “author” to have a military background?
It was the easiest and most plausible reason for Robert to know how the Special Investigation Branch operates and investigates. Another reason for making him a military man working in the civilian security industry was to give him a solid excuse not to appear in public or provide a photograph.
What is your process of writing these novels and is it different to how you write your other work?
I often start with a kernel of an idea then work out how to get there. I plan and research a lot and know far more about the characters than actually ends up ever appearing in the books. I have colour coded spreadsheets, so I can keep a track of where I am going.
It is how I have always worked. It was the same for the Harry Potter novels. It’s well documented the level of detailed planning that went into those.
Generally, I am quite disciplined in my writing and do try to have a set working day, but I don’t set myself targets of number of words to achieve. Sometimes I consider I have had a good day if I have deleted a lot of words or have simply done plenty of thinking.
And I never write the title page until the book is finished.
About the TV
The first three books have now been adapted for TV. What was it like to see Strike and Robin brought to life on screen?
Wonderful! I was quite closely involved with the adaptation, and I was thrilled with the finished series. Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger did a magnificent job of portraying the two leads and London, which is almost a third major character in the books, is beautifully shot.
What about the casting of Strike and Robin?
Tom Burke is a remarkable actor. The thing with Strike, particularly early on in the series, is that he is quite taciturn. He’s quite buttoned up, so you’ve got to say quite a lot without saying a lot. I knew Tom could convey menace very well too without being flashy. So, for those moments when Strike has to be scary, rather than snoring or peeing in a pot, he does extremely well. Then there’s the physicality of the role: a big man struggling with a job that would be onerous for an able-bodied man, but which for a person with one leg means a significant amount of daily pain and discomfort.
Robin’s challenging in different way. She seems a very conventional character when you first meet her: newly engaged, looking for a tidy office job to complement her soon-to-be husband’s career. Robin doesn’t realise that for a long time she’s leading a life that’s inimical to who she really is.
Holliday conveys all that perfectly: the slow crumbling of the façade, the steel beneath the surface, the subtle transformation of what appears to be a placidly settled girl into the person she was supposed to be, before trauma in her past derailed her existence. And Holliday really can handle that tank-like old Land Rover like a pro.
How are you involved in the TV adaptations?
I like to work closely with the script writer on the storyline and adaptation, because of what I have planned in the future for the characters, but I have to credit the rest of the team, especially Ruth Kenley-Letts, for everything else.
Can we expect to see more Strike on TV?
Definitely. I hope TV adaptations continue to follow the novels, and I have many more adventures planned for Strike and Robin.