“The Cuckoo’s Calling,” a debut detective novel published here in April, was not a huge commercial success, but it got great reviews.
Readers described it as complex, compelling and scintillating. They compared the author — a former military police investigator writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith — to P. D. James, Ruth Rendell and Kate Atkinson. They said the book seemed almost too assured and sophisticated to be a first novel.
As it happens, they were right. In one of the great publishing coups in recent years, “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” which has sold just 1,500 copies in Britain so far, turns out to have been written not by an ex-British Army officer, or by a new writer, or even by a man. Instead, its author is J. K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter novels have made her one of the world’s best-selling, and best-known, authors.
Ms. Rowling was unmasked by The Sunday Times of London, which, acting on an anonymous tip, embarked on a sleuthing mission of its own and published the result on Sunday. In the article, Ms. Rowling confessed to the ruse and spoke somewhat wistfully of her brief, happy foray into anonymous authorship.
“I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience,” she said in a statement. “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”
Nicky Stonehill, a publicist for the author, said on Sunday that Mr. Galbraith and Ms. Rowling were indeed one and the same. “We can confirm it,” she said, “but we are not making any further statement.”
Many best-selling authors like to write under pseudonyms, particularly when they venture into new genres. The Irish novelist John Banville, a Man Booker Prize winner, publishes detective novels under the name Benjamin Black. Anne Rice has written erotic fiction as A. N. Roquelaure. Early in his career, Stephen King published several novels using the name Richard Bachman. (In 1985, after he was exposed as the real Richard Bachman, Mr. King announced that Mr. Bachman had died of “cancer of the pseudonym, a rare form of schizonomia.”) But it is rare for the existence of such an alter ego to be kept secret in this way, particularly for someone whose writing life has been as public and whose books have been as eagerly awaited as Ms. Rowling’s.
After the mega-success of her Harry Potter series, Ms. Rowling wrote a novel for adults, “The Casual Vacancy,” which was published by Little, Brown & Company in September amid intense anticipation. A tale of class warfare and economic and social injustice in a small English village, it became an instant best seller and was reviewed everywhere, but the notices were hardly universally ecstatic.
By contrast, “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” in which a war veteran turned private detective investigates the possibly suspicious suicide of a young model in London, made barely a ripple in the commercial world but received lavish praise. It was published by Mulholland Books, a Little, Brown imprint.
“Galbraith combines a complex and compelling sleuth and an equally well-formed and unlikely assistant with a baffling crime in his stellar debut,” Publishers Weekly said in a starred review.
“The Cuckoo’s Calling,” the thriller writer Val McDermid said, “reminds me why I fell in love with crime fiction in the first place.”
The story of how The Sunday Times uncovered the truth is an odd one that involves, as seems so often the case these days, Twitter. It started on Thursday, said Richard Brooks, the paper’s arts editor, after one of his colleagues happened to post a tweet mentioning that she had loved “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” and that it did not seem as if the book had been written by a novice.
“After midnight she got a tweet back from an anonymous person saying it’s not a first-time novel — it was written by J. K. Rowling,” Mr. Brooks said in an interview. “So my colleague tweeted back and said, ‘How do you know for sure?’ ”
The person replied, “I just know,” and then proceeded to delete all his (or her) tweets and to close down the Twitter account, Mr. Brooks said. “All traces of this person had been taken off, and we couldn’t find his name again.”
It is, of course, possible that the anonymous tweets were part of a sneaky campaign by the publisher to get the story out. But The Sunday Times’s curiosity was piqued, and Mr. Brooks decided to work surreptitiously at first, not alerting Ms. Rowling’s publisher or agent for fear of having the possible news leak to a competitor.
First he did some Internet detective work, finding many similarities between “The Casual Vacancy” and “The Cuckoo’s Calling.” Both books shared the same agent, publisher and editor in Britain, for example. It seemed particularly odd, he said, that the editor, David Shelley, would be in charge of both someone as important as J. K. Rowling — a very big job, indeed — and someone as seemingly unimportant as Robert Galbraith.
He then started reading the book. “I said, ‘Nobody who was in the Army and now works in civilian security could write a book as good as this,’ ” he said. Next, he sent copies of “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” “The Casual Vacancy” and the last Harry Potter novel, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” to a pair of computer linguistic experts, who found significant similarities among them.
Mr. Brooks, too, noted that “The Cuckoo’s Calling” contained some Latin phrases, as the Harry Potter books do, and that it had scenes of drug taking, as “The Casual Vacancy” does.
Late on Friday night, Mr. Brooks said, he decided “to go for it.”
“I e-mailed a blunt question: ‘I believe that Robert Galbraith is in fact J. K. Rowling, and will you please come back with a straightforward answer?’ ” he related. On Saturday morning, he said he received a response from a Rowling spokeswoman, who said that she had “decided to ’fess up.’ ”
Ms. Rowling now stands to make a lot of money from this new book, and so do the publishers. One interesting aspect of the whole story is how Little, Brown essentially colluded in keeping a secret that caused it, at least until now, to forgo possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.
In a short statement released on Sunday, Reagan Arthur, Little, Brown’s publisher, said that the company was “pleased and proud” of “The Cuckoo’s Calling.” “A reprint of the book is under way and will carry a revised author biography, which reads ‘Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling,’ ” she said. The company said it planned to publish a second book in what looks set to be a series by Mr. Galbraith, a k a Ms. Rowling, next summer.
Contacted on Sunday morning, several bookstores in London said they did not have copies of “The Cuckoo’s Calling” in stock. But they will soon. In just a few hours the book had already shot to No. 1 on the Amazon best-seller lists in both Britain and the United States.