The Harry Potter author’s new mystery is the latest in a beautiful tradition: authors illuminating the city they love.
I love it when an author or artist’s work helps you understand his city—it’s not just a “sense of place,” but a sense of this place; a glimpse into the soul of Paris or London or (always) New York. As a longtime suburbanite, I am drawn to the powerful feeling of nostalgia and love of a place that isn’t mine but—thanks to the artist—I can begin to understand.
Elsewhere, I’ve observed that the Harry Potter books were brilliant on this score. Their author understood the magic (lowercase “m”) of a place that shapes people and has been shaped by people, a place that is worth loving, a place that is worth calling home. And I think she understood that a suburban generation of young people from broken homes would, like Harry, feel more homesick for such a place (Hogwarts) than any “real” place they’d lived. It wasn’t a role-playing game geek’s fantasy that made you withdraw from the real world, though—it was good fantasy; the kind that showed you a picture of something that the real world ought to be more like.
I recently got my hands on a copy of “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” the new mystery (for grown-ups) by J.K. Rowling (er, sorry, “Robert Galbraith”). I’d heard the buzz when the book got rave reviews from people who said it was a brilliant revival of the private eye genre—and then the bigger buzz when it became known that the enigmatical Robert Galbraith was in fact a woman, and J.K. Rowling at that. She’d written the book under a pseudonym so that reviewers would give her book a fair shake, rather than love it or hate it because it was by the Harry Potter woman. And the new book, by most accounts, stands tall on its merits (I haven’t finished it yet).
Yesterday, I came across a passage early on in the book that once again shows Rowling’s ability to convey the magic of a place, but this time it’s a real place; London.
“It was nearly eight before he returned to the office. This was the hour when he found London most lovable; the working day over, her pub windows were warm and jewel-like, her streets thrummed with life, and the indefatigable permanence of her aged buildings, softened by the street lights, became strangely reassuring. We have seen plenty like you, they seemed to murmur soothingly, as he limped along Oxford Street carrying a boxed-up camp bed. Seven and a half million hearts were beating in close proximity in this heaving old city, and many, after all, would be aching far worse than his. Walking wearily past closing shops, while the heavens turned indigo above him, Strike found solace in vastness and anonymity.”
I like how she captured the bigness and daunting age of a city as a way of getting me inside the discouragement and smallness of the character at that moment…yet still made me think she loved the place and made me get a glimpse of why. This is how authors help make great cities, and how great cities make great authors.
Featured photo is by the incredible Trey Ratliff of Stick In Customs.