Sexism, crime fiction and JK Rowling’s ‘Career of Evil’

When Joanne Rowling revealed her identity to her editor, after he had read the first of the Robert Galbraith novels without knowing its true authorship, the editor told her that he ‘never would have thought a woman wrote that’. Rowling subsequently declared that in crafting the book she had ‘successfully channeled [her] inner bloke’.

Yet the first time Rowling was mistaken for a male author, she barely had to try at all. Having been advised by her publisher that boys would not read a book written by a woman, ‘JK Rowling’ graced the cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and deep-seated societal assumptions did the rest of the work: the first fan mail Rowling ever received for Harry Potter was addressed ‘Dear Sir’. One wonders how her time spent in the publishing industry, or perhaps merely in the wider world, contributed not only to her choice of a male nom de plume but to the attitudes espoused in the early works of ‘Robert Galbraith’. There is an element, at least in the first two Galbraith books, The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, that greatly assists in masking the author’s gender: the simmering undercurrent of the protagonist’s sexism.

Feminist fans of Rowling’s work have been delighting for years in the vast worlds she creates, populated by multitudes of distinct and captivating female characters, but admiration has often been tinged with frustration. (There’s also plenty to be said about her portrayals of queer characters and fat characters, but that is another essay.) It can be difficult to reconcile Rowling’s portrayal of the enormous variance of women and girls with her authorial voice’s tendency toward disdain for characters who veer too far toward stereotypically-feminine traits or preoccupations. It’s not just Dolores Umbridge, arguably the most hateable villain in the Harry Potter oeuvre, with her grotesquely pink, ribboned attire and penchant for collecting kitten-emblazoned display plates. It’s giggly, clingy Lavender Brown, who bestows cutesy nicknames on her friends and obsesses over crushes. It‘s teary, jealous Cho Chang, who Harry considers, for a time, attractive but incomprehensible. It’s enchanting, snobby, self-assured Fleur Delacour, to whom many of the most beloved women of Harry Potter’s world take an instant dislike. It’s Samantha Mollison, a sniping, dissatisfied wife and mother in The Casual Vacancy, who runs a failing lingerie shop and lusts after members of her daughter’s favourite boy band.

An argument could be made that the revulsion often expressed toward the performance of femininity in Rowling’s work is tied to class. The women in her novels who are most condemned for their investment in femme frippery are often those who are grasping for greater wealth or status – Dolores Umbridge is both power hungry and deeply invested in maintaining the social status quo – or attempting to project an air of superior upper-class elegance. Consider Fleur Delacour, who clashes with her fiancé’s warm yet poor family, or rich and privileged Narcissa Malfoy, who is aligned with the Death Eaters in Harry Potter and whose beauty is marred by her disgust at those she perceives as beneath her.

This is a pattern that continues in the Galbraith books, where we meet tanned and surgically enhanced sisters Tansy Bestigui and Ursula May, described in The Cuckoo’s Calling as ‘rich-girl thin’ and ‘wealth-seeking missiles’. Indeed, when I read the first of the Rowling’s crime novels, I was sure I was seeing a continuation of Rowling’s ambivalence toward the feminine – if not a worsening of it.

Cormoran Strike, the detective around whom the Galbraith books revolve, is an otherwise fundamentally decent and humane character who happens to have issues with women redolent of trench-coated 1930s gumshoes behind Venetian blinds in smoky offices. His beautiful, volatile, manipulative ex-fiance, a pathological liar from a privileged family whose romance with Strike is motivated as much by rebellion as powerful attraction, would be equally at home as the femme fatale in a noir novel or the ideal target for the ire of Reddit’s Red Pill community. (Though Strike never classifies his relationship with her as such, it is undoubtedly abusive; readers first meet Strike suffering from facial wounds she inflicted on him in the heat of a relationship-imploding row.) His half-sister, Lucy, is a well-intentioned busybody with designs of luring him into the comfortably-salaried, married-with-children domesticity to which she believes everyone should aspire. He has a tendency to, without quite meaning to, use his love interests while largely disregarding their feelings. Women in general are, in his view, far too intent upon worming their way into his life and demanding access to his confidences. Women are poor drivers. His secretary-turned-partner-in-training, Robin Ellacott, proves herself a shining exception; her respect for his privacy and her exceptional defensive driving skills surprise and impress him along with her initiative and investigative talents. In The Silkworm, after Strike has bought her surveillance lessons as a Christmas present, he quips that most women would have expected flowers. She responds, with heartbreaking pride, that she’s not like ‘most women’.

All around the world, ‘most women’ – reminded as we often are that it is terrible to be too much like a woman, whatever that means – heave a resigned sigh.

It’s for this reason that reading the third of the Galbraith mysteries, Career of Evil, felt like a substantial departure – an evolution. This does not feel like a book that could have been written by a bloke. Career of Evil is deeply preoccupied with both everyday sexism and exceptional misogyny, and firmly located at its centre is Robin Ellacott, who, as it turns out, is both exceptional and very much one of those ‘other women’.

The villain of the tale, a character Rowling created with reference to both the writing of Charles Manson and posts on certain unnamed online forums filled with misogynist vitriol, harbours an old grudge against Strike. Attempting to enact revenge, he sets his sights on Robin, delivering her a severed leg by courier and plotting, eventually, to murder her, as he has murdered other women before her. Strike and Robin must determine the identity of the man who sent the leg if they are to restore the reputation of Strike’s detective agency and protect Robin’s safety, and that means investigating three of the vilest and most dangerous men Strike has encountered in his storied career. It’s a premise that could easily slide into torture porn, but – by deliberate design – the text avoids unnecessary prurience and focuses squarely on the three-dimensional humanity of the victims of these men, and the genuine horrors of living in a world where the spectre of violence against women appears always to be lurking.

That’s thanks, in no small part to the dominance of Robin’s perspective in the text. Her unwavering empathy and the revulsion and fury she feels when facing not just violence and misogyny but also others’ callousness toward it is borne of more than her care for people and interest in psychology. Robin shares an experience with a vast company of women: she was raped. We have, blessedly, had two whole books to get to know Robin as a character without this revelation hanging over her (again, a deliberate authorial choice); Robin does not disappear into the role of victim, but she has a perspective on the crimes explored in the book that Strike cannot hope to match. Through her eyes, the book explores not just the media’s preferred sensationalist narratives of stranger-danger violence against women but more insidious societal evils, too. Robin’s world is one of ubiquitous street harassment; of a loving but carelessly derisive brother who nearly manages to convince her that her career goals are unattainable; of a fiancé threatened by everything from her growing ambition to her wearing of too-high heels; of concern for her protection that stifles her growth, ambition and autonomy; of a constant, consuming fear that showing emotion means showing feminine weakness and incapacity; of people who, as caring as they may be in principle, are unwilling to take serious risks to protect the vulnerable; of employers who may claim to see her as an equal but who do not always act as if they believe it. An extraordinary scene between her and her fiancé, set against the backdrop of the 2011 British royal wedding, answers, in a nuanced and sympathetic way, a question with which the Strike books have been consistently preoccupied: why do women often stay with men who do not appear to have their best interests at heart?

Moreover, Robin is unmistakably feminine, and the text does not condemn her for it. A close reading of the Galbraith books reveals that those traits of hers most associated with derided femininity have often enhanced her detecting prowess. She’s the sort of woman who reads Grazia, gets excited about buying wedding magazines and covets Jimmy Choos, and her awareness of fashion and of the social mores of boutiques proves invaluable when she masterfully extracts information from shop assistants in The Cuckoo’s Calling. Her interrogation techniques are shaped by her particular psychological nous but are familiar to those of us who were socialised, as women, to be gentle and accommodating. She feels intensely, and she cries, even though she fears that Strike will perceive her as less competent and capable because of it. She repeatedly allows soft-heartedness to get in the way of self-preservation, acting recklessly but heroically as a result. She is emotional, soft, and occasionally frivolous; she is also crafty and observant and capable as hell.

This evolution within the Galbraith books, and the emergence of the literary breath of fresh air that is Robin from beneath the shadow of Strike’s quotidian sexism and Rowling’s past portrayals of femme women, could be explained as a sign of the times. Many of the themes explored in Career of Evil are intensely contemporary: this is a book that owes much to recent online discussions of rape culture, street harassment, victim blaming and the devaluation of the lives of sex workers. But explaining Career of Evil as having come about solely because the world changed and Rowling changed with it may give Rowling too little credit in this instance.

Authorial voice aside, Rowling’s style has always been to tell stories through the eyes of her characters, with their limited perspectives and personal biases. There are enormous swathes of the Harry Potter world and the emotional lives of its characters that Harry, hardly the world’s most observant kid and often a smidge preoccupied with death, danger and intrigue, misses completely.  As a result, readers often miss these insights too, or glimpse them only in rare moments when more attentive characters reveal them. This can be limiting, but it can also act in the service of the formidable plotting skills and authorial sleight of hand that make Rowling a natural fit for detective novels; often, characters will just barely notice elements that blossom, in later books, into matters of enormous significance.

The Casual Vacancy, the first and only book for adults published under Rowling’s own name following Harry Potter, flickers between the perspectives of a vast cast of characters. None of these characters quite understand each other, and nearly all of them are loathsome to some degree. Their callousness, prejudice, and misguided attempts to change their small town lead to a series of increasingly disastrous events culminating in tragedy. The Casual Vacancy has much to say about cycles of poverty and disadvantage, intergenerational misunderstanding, longing, loss, abuse, bullying and prejudice, about how people are harmed by one another and in turn do harm. But there are no consistently correct, paragon protagonists in it to tell us how we ought to feel or what we ought to do – the novel begins with the death of the most decent person in town. The closest Rowling has ever come to writing a consistently virtuous person, an actual role model, is Harry Potter himself, a confused, traumatised teenager who manages to make plenty of mistakes. (Harry’s most beloved mentors, for example, include a teacher who nearly abandoned his wife and newborn son, a godfather who treated his servant appallingly and a school principal who was once the wizarding equivalent of a white supremacist.) Cormoran Strike, like every hero Rowling has ever persuaded us to admire and care for, is flawed by design. He’s not sexist because the text is sexist, even if his sexism is unfortunately reminiscent of the uncomfortable portrayals of femininity in Rowling’s past work; he’s sexist because the text wants to consider sexism.

It is my suspicion that the Galbraith books have always been deliberately leading toward the shift in gender politics that takes place in Career of Evil. There have been hints along the way – the supermodels in The Cuckoo’s Calling who recite Whitman off the cuff and have deferred places to read English at Cambridge; Strike’s growing awareness of his caddish behaviour toward his love interest in The Silkworm; said love interest’s mockery of a pompous male author who ‘can’t write women’; Strike’s painfully personal knowledge of the fact that female victims of violence are often dismissed, forgotten or misunderstood because of their wildness, their socioeconomic disadvantage or their sexual licentiousness. While Strike may be subtly sexist, and while Robin may buy into ideas about women that lead her to feel pride when she is distinguished from others of her gender, readers are invited, and eventually encouraged, to disagree.

One starts to suspect that Strike’s attitudes to women were incorporated into his character to lend credence to the fiction that Robert Galbraith, rather than Joanne Rowling, wrote these books. Rowling certainly hoped, when The Cuckoo’s Calling was first published, to enjoy a little more time writing and being reviewed without the baggage of Harry Potter attached to the work. But Rowling’s gift for extensive forward planning and literary slight-of-hand suggest another possibility: that the sexism may, rather than serving the false identity, have served the same purpose as the false identity. Before her success profoundly affected our beliefs about what young adults would read and who they would listen to, she was told to mask her gender if she wanted to gain a substantial male readership. Perhaps, in becoming Robert Galbraith, in creating a world and a voice that would not alienate male readers, she planned to pull a Mad Max all along, using genre convention as a Trojan horse to tell a story that would lead readers to consider perspectives they might not willingly consider if they were written under a woman’s name.

Hannah Aroni

Hannah Aroni writes fiction and nonfiction in various forms, including plays, short stories and sprawling legal research reports.

More by Hannah Aroni ›

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  1. Googling “robert galbraith sexism” after reading the most-women-would’ve-expected-flowers-I’m-not-most-women irksome couplet has led me to this page, which delineates everything I’ve felt about the series so far. Happy to read I may look forward to a departure from the “quotidian sexism” once I start “Career of Evil,” and to see a similar suspicion that perhaps Rowling penned these things in full awareness, with purpose. It’s not pleasant to think such a talented, prominent woman would proliferate that banality. (I did think Hermione was pretty consistent & good enough to be a role model.) Much appreciated!

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