17 July 2013

Rowling as a Mystery Writer All Along

Last week’s revelation that J. K. Rowling has published a pseudonymous murder mystery sent folks back to the archives for clues they wished they had seen all along: her remarks that she might publish under another name, a brief mention of a Scottish mystery she was trying out.

But the most perspicacious commenter was probably trivia master Ken Jennings, who wrote back in 2007:

I read the Harry Potter books as enormously sophisticated Scooby-Doo mysteries.

Structurally, these aren’t fantasy novels at all. They’re fair-play mysteries in wizard’s clothing–novels with not just plots and characters and setpieces, but “solutions” as well. J. K. Rowling is justly praised for her elaborate and meticulous world-building, but I’m convinced that a lot of that endless detail is just there for standard detective-novel purposes: to distract, to confound, to envelop the real “clues” in a Cloak of Invisibility. . . .

Rowling seems to draw more from the Agatha Christie tradition: a multiplicity of colorful “suspects,” many with hidden agendas; red herrings galore; and a final drawing-room exposition-fest in which Hercule Dumbledore explains How It Was Done.

Just as in a murder mystery, the guilty party is always the least likely suspect. . . . Some of these reveals even involve the Hogwarts equivalent of a Scooby-Doo rubber mask coming off the crotchety caretaker: Quirrell’s turban, Pettigrew’s Animagus disguise, Barty Crouch, Jr.’s Polyjuice Potion. “Like, zoiks, Hermione–it was Old Man Milligrew all along!” . . .

I bet Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter book–talk about a hard act to follow–will be a classic mystery of some kind. I don’t know if it’ll be a hard-boiled gumshoe case, a true-crime police procedural, a classic manor-house throwback, or what, but it’ll be a mystery novel. She’s been writing them all along, after all. It’s just that no one’s noticed.
And couldn’t Rupert Grint play a fine Shaggy?

TOMORROW: What this should tell us about genre.

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