What’s the motivation and inspiration behind the Cormoran Strike novels?
What approach is taken to the development of the characters, the plots, the locations and everything else, in these intriguing and complex stories?
Writing as Robert Galbraith
I’ve always loved detective fiction, Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, Margery Allingham and PD James, I love them all.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Their relationship takes its biggest step forward so far. Their friendship changes and deepens, and the balance of power in their professional partnership shifts, too, because there are times when Robin has to take on far more responsibility at the agency while Strike’s dealing with significant challenges in his private life. Strike and Robin are also examining their feelings for each other with more honesty than ever before, which is immensely satisfying to write.
Without giving much away, change, loss and absence are probably the biggest themes. The detective agency is investigating a cold case: the mysterious disappearance of a female doctor in 1974, which happens to be the year of Strike’s birth. The changing face of feminism and ideals and stereotypes of femininity are also examined through the cast of characters. The vanished doctor was an ardent feminist who once worked as a Bunny girl. The complexities of Dr Bamborough’s life are mirrored in Robin’s own, because she’s approaching thirty, going through a divorce and asking herself how she could ever reconcile a demanding and sometimes dangerous job with motherhood. Meanwhile the suspects in Dr Bamborough’s disappearance include a womanising patient who seems to have developed feelings for her, a passive-aggressive husband who wanted her to quit her job to become a full-time mother, and a sadistic serial killer active in the 60s and 70s, who was loosely based on real life killers Jerry Brudos and Russell Williams – both master manipulators who took trophies from their victims.
I always knew it would be lengthy, because the investigation spans over a year and because there are such significant developments in each of the detective partners’ private lives. It’s my favourite of the series by far and I think the length is necessary to do the story justice, so I can only hope readers agree (and don’t incur wrist strain.)
I’ve got no intention of quitting any time soon. I’ve already started number six. Being Robert Galbraith is pure pleasure, so as long as I’ve got plots, I’ll keep going!
With four books launched, and the fifth about to arrive, the Strike series combines ongoing themes throughout, with very unique, very different individual crimes in each story.
I’ve loved writing all the Strike books. The classic whodunnit 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 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.
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.
I try to do a differently constructed plot every single time. It shouldn’t show too obviously, but that’s the challenge for me.
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 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.
Throughout the stories, you’ll find characters that you love, that you hate, that will make you laugh, that will make you cry – whether it be Strike, or Robin, or any of the recurring characters, to the wide range of intriguing personalities that we get to meet in each story.
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 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.
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.
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.
The Strike stories introduce you to London in its entirety; North, South, East and West. You also see Strike and Robin journey to different parts of the country, following up clues from Scotland, to Cumbria and to as far south as you can go, to Cornwall.
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.
How well do you know Lethal White?
Take the quiz and find out if your attention to details and focus and concentration skills are a match for those of Strike and Robin.