Of course it was the big bad corporate lawyer’s fault.
For almost a week, cynicism has been simmering around J K Rowling’s “secret” crime novel, written under the pen name Robert Galbraith. Though the unmasking of Galbraith and resulting sprint of The Cuckoo’s Calling up the Amazon chart from No 4,709 to No 1 bore all the hallmarks of a publishing conspiracy, it now looks as though it was, rather more prosaically, a cock-up.
Chris Gossage, a partner at Russells, the law firm that represents – possibly not for much longer – the multimillionaire author, revealed the true identity of Galbraith to Judith Callegari, his wife’s best friend, who in turn posted a late-night message on Twitter to a journalist. Despite having a name straight out of a 1960s spy movie, Callegari wasn’t, as widely assumed, an online sock puppet for a publisher eager to shift more than the measly 1,500 copies it had managed so far. And Rowling wasn’t wickedly manipulating the reading public to her own profit. And it wasn’t a publicity stunt after all, though the end result – uncountable column inches, reviews and royalties for The Cuckoo’s Calling – is spookily similar.
The whole thing could not have worked out better if Rowling had plotted it herself, perhaps as a sequel to her social saga The Casual Vacancy. Philanthropic, fame-shy artist and single mother vs bragging City parasite. Throw in a Twitter mystery and a Snowden-style manhunt (so zeitgeist) and one can almost hear Harvey Weinstein licking his lips and putting in the calls to Rachel Weisz, Bradley Cooper and Reese Witherspoon to play the saintly writer, the slippery loudmouth and his ditzy confidante, respectively.
And yet, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for the villains of the piece – Gossage and, to a lesser extent, Callegari. Rowling is right to feel furious with them. Not only has her ruse been rumbled, putting paid to her nicely anonymous, if not wildly lucrative, hobby. Not only will she have to come up with a new pseudonym and hero (names like Cormoran Strike don’t just happen, you know), but Russells has failed in its most basic duty of confidentiality to its client. Gossage will most likely lose his job. Callegari may well lose a best friend. Rowling could, if she wanted, sue her lawyers for breach of confidence though she might have a hard time outlining her grievances. Even the fairest judge might not regard a case citing a 507,000 per cent spike in sales as damaging.
On a professional level, then, Gossage has failed miserably but on a human level, who could honestly say they would not have done the same? Imagine knowing a juicy, fairly harmless little secret like that, sitting at a dinner party where everyone else at the table has you pegged as the boring solicitor. Everyone talks about their work: doctors let off steam by sharing gory patient anecdotes; teachers moan about their pupils. And journalists, well, we have a professional duty to gossip, or it flatters us to think so.
There are secrets and secrets. From the kind of bald moral standpoint Rowling’s novels favour, if someone asks you to keep a confidence, you have a duty to do just that. In some cases – matters of state, say – a secret can be a matter of life or death. In others, lives, livelihoods and families may be at stake. In rare cases, a secret should be shared, but the line between heroic whistleblower and careless whisperer is fiendishly fine.
The fact is, the stakes were never high enough for Rowling’s confidants to keep shtum. Someone would have blabbed eventually, maybe even Rowling herself. It is not much fun getting away with something if you can’t show off about getting away with it eventually. The moment that Rowling told one person about Robert Galbraith, she wrote his demise. If she had really wanted to preserve her pseudonym, she simply could have submitted the manuscript under his name and never breathed a word to anyone. But some secrets are just not worth keeping.
What’s hot and what’s not at the Inns of Court
It is not all bad news for lawyers, though. Some of them are quite cute. A new website called Your Barrister Boyfriend is causing a stir in the Inns of Court. It ranks “The 21 Hottest Barristers in London 2013” along with brooding headshots and crucial information about their public-school credentials – “He went to Eton (ding ding ding!)”; whether they play cricket; where you might find shirtless pictures of them on the internet.
The list has been drawn up by two American women living in London who came up with the idea as a way of snaring a bewigged boyfriend. “We’re attracted to barristers because of the ethos and tradition of the British legal world,” they said, in the strenuous manner of those dollybirds who perch on the laps of 80-year-old millionaires and coo about love being blind. One of them has adopted the pseudonym Ivy Williams, in honour of the first woman to be called to the English bar in 1922. I am sure Ivy would be very proud of her.
Now Ivy and her sister in the Great Fight to bring Stepford to modern London are drawing up a list of the 21 hottest female barristers, too, in order to avoid tiresome charges of sexism. Thanks for thought, girls, but I think this is probably one piece of equality we can live without.