I have been reviewing crime fiction for The Telegraph for 15 years. In all that time, I have only rarely been chided on social media – or, in the early years, received angry letters – because of my opinions. I have never seen myself as being in the business of manufacturing outrage, chasing clicks or gotcha-ing writers for their heterodox views; I just try to give my honest thoughts about books.
Most recently, about a year ago, there was a nasty moment when Stephen King’s fans got the pitchforks out for me after he quoted (on Twitter) something disobliging I wrote about his books (although it was, in fact, a misquote). Well, good; people should feel passionate about books.
But “all Hell breaking loose” took on another meaning this week, when I reviewed Troubled Blood, the new Cormoran Strike mystery by Robert Galbraith, better known as JK Rowling. I soon found myself accused of trying to “cancel” Ms Rowling and more or less inventing a character who did not appear in the book in order to pursue a pro-Trans agenda.
I am a great admirer of JK Rowling and her writing. I loved the first three Strike novels and in 2017 I wrote an article explaining why I thought the series is her crowning achievement. I was less convinced by Troubled Blood, but found things to praise in my review, including her portrayal of Strike's partner in sleuthing, Robin. Rowling’s recent revelation that she was sexually assaulted as a young woman adds an extra poignancy to her depiction of how Robin’s similar experiences drive her desire to help life’s victims.
As it happens, I was the only newspaper critic to plough through the new novel’s 900 pages in time for the Sunday papers. A couple of lines in my penultimate paragraph caught people’s attention. The book concerns “the disappearance of GP Margot Bamborough in 1974, thought to have been a victim of Dennis Creed, a transvestite serial killer,” I wrote. “One wonders what critics of Rowling’s stance on trans issues will make of a book whose moral seems to be: never trust a man in a dress.”
The next day, those two sentences were quoted in Pink News, the LGBT online newspaper, and people took to Twitter in their droves to complain about the recycling of the old trope of the cross-dressing serial killer. This was a harmful idea for a popular author to propagate, their argument ran, when trans people and cross-dressers are vulnerable to attack but very rarely commit serious physical harm in real life.
Initially, I missed the furore, as in my view nothing is better for the spirits than long absences from social media. The next day, I discovered that the hashtag #RIPJKRowling was trending, and Jedward, of all people, were expressing pleasure at the thought of the book being burned.
The pontificating from people who had not read the book struck me as absurd, but the hashtag was chilling: malicious and misogynistic. The people who defended the hashtag, by saying that it simply referred to her career, were justifying a totally debased discourse. I would certainly not argue that JK Rowling is deliberately transphobic, and she deserves better.
It was a nasty thing to have precipitated, but it was also inevitable. Some of the reviews that have now appeared since the book was published on Tuesday – such as those in The Daily Beast or Pink News – are of a harshness that I came nowhere near to approaching. If they had been published on Sunday along with mine, nobody would have paid mine the slightest attention. And if my review had appeared later on – this coming Sunday, say – the whole ghastly pile-on would have been sparked by somebody else’s comments by now.
In any case, a backlash began. The journalist Nick Cohen complained on Twitter that The Telegraph had started a “hatefest”, and said that I had made the “false claim” that the book was “about ‘a transvestite serial killer’”. (I didn’t; I mentioned that there was a transvestite serial killer in it.) Mr Cohen also published an article in The Spectator, which, owing to a slight lack of clarity, was incorrectly interpreted by some readers as stating that there is only one short passage mentioning transvestism in the book.
Soon I had people filling up my notifications, telling me that I had invented a transvestite character based on a misreading of the book, or just out of malice. People were generally polite-ish, but furious. I was accused of being a "woke warrior" – I’m not sure anyone has ever told me I’m woke before – trying to get Rowling into trouble because of her views. One wag thought my Twitter bio – in which I describe myself as a “mainliner of crime fiction” – ought to read “maligner of crime fiction”. Well, that made me laugh.
I certainly don’t think critics should be exempt from criticism. Still, let me explain why I wrote what I did. Dennis Creed is a major character in the book – and yes, there are lots of characters, but he is one of the most striking and dominant figures. We are treated to several long extracts from a “biography” of him, going into a lot of detail about his life and crimes.
He is a serial killer who preys on women and often tortures them for months. Some of his crimes are discussed in detail and we meet relatives of the victims – his role in the book is not just confined to his involvement in the central mystery, the disappearance of Margot Bamborough.
Creed is described as somebody who enjoys stealing and wearing women’s underwear and performing as Kay Starr in a woman’s coat. He is established as wearing a woman’s coat, a wig and lipstick when he preys on women, and at one point describes his modus operandi: “... in a wig, bit of lipstick … they think you’re harmless, odd … maybe queer. Talked to her for a minute or two, little dark corner. You act concerned … Bit of Nembutal in her drink…” It is established in the following pages that most of Creed’s crimes were carried out when he was at least partly cross-dressed.
I was struck by that passage, which seems to suggest that all these women died because they were naive enough to assume that all cross-dressing men are harmless. To my mind, the implication, conscious or otherwise, was that it is unwise to trust cross-dressers implicitly. Of course, people are entitled to think that my interpretation is wrong-headed or was glibly expressed: but it was not conjured, as some have asserted, out of thin air. The references to cross-dressing are not numerous and sometimes oblique, but it is one of the jobs of a critic to tease out subtexts, spot connections, make explicit what is implicit in a book.
What I wrote – this mere sentence and a half on the topic – was also partly intended as a prediction of what the reaction would be: the Robert Galbraith novels have been criticised in the past for their portrayals of characters such as Pippa Midgley, a transgender woman who stalks and attacks Strike in The Silk Worm (although I found her a sympathetic character).
It would also be strange for a reviewer to ignore the fact that somebody who has famously written about trans issues this year has a cross-dressing man in her latest novel, and not comment on the portrayal. However, although I have criticised some aspects of her book, I certainly think she should be allowed to write about who- or whatever she likes – a regrettable difference between me and some of her critics.
What irks those critics is that any kind of trans or cross-dressing character should be portrayed as an evil killer. It was my revealing this plot detail, rather than my subjective opinions, which brought fire down on Rowling. So forgive me for thinking that those who say that I blew what Rowling wrote out of proportion are doing the same to me.