Critics let Robert Galbraith’s debut crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, pass initially without fanfare, albeit with positive reviews. After Galbraith was revealed as J.K. Rowling’s pseudonym, reviewers rallied to see evidence of its famous author’s brilliance in the novel, some claiming to have quietly intuited it all along. Perhaps so, but it’s a strain to find consequential similarities between Cormoran Strike and Harry Potter, Denmark Street and Diagon Alley, a one-legged, ex-army private detective and an orphaned boy wizard. Character, setting, plot, style, and theme are very different under Galbraith’s hand. Rowling thoroughly reinvented herself as an author.
With five novels of the C.B. Strike series out, Rowling’s protagonist and his world are increasingly well-defined. Here are three points of interest from my summer reading.
First, Rowling writes for a wide audience, yet she has a bookish flair that invites cultured readers’ notice. In The Cuckoo’s Calling she draws her epigraph from Christina Rossetti and section headnotes from Accius, Virgil, Horace, Pliny, and Boethius. In The Silkworm, it’s early English dramatists: William Congreve, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, and John Webster, among others. Lethal White’s chapters begin with lines from Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. Rowling’s headnotes offer literary-hermeneutical fulcrums to pry against in tracing her stories.
Second, her detective novels follow the lives of two college dropouts: Strike, who left Oxford for the British Army, and his partner, Robin Ellacott, who read psychology before leaving university in distress. Both are bright and inquisitive. Strike recognizes Latin lines dropped into genteel London club conversation. Ellacott deploys technical psychological terms to describe clients and suspects. They regularly evince a caliber of learning that exceeds their truncated formal educations. Degreeless, they’re still well-read, skilled, and profound of thought and feeling.
Third, Strike and Ellacott manage not only without university degrees, but without healthy institutions. The books dramatize pervasive skepticism about institutions. The Metropolitan Police conduct lackluster investigations. Government ministers bluster and blather. The Fourth Estate trades in tawdry sensationalism. The C of E is all but absent aside from lingering witness in architecture and symbols. In Strike’s London, individuals are left to their own wits to sort what’s wrong in the world, what’s wrong with themselves, and what’s worth desire and sacrifice.
All of that brings me to wonder if we’re preparing our students to read, if not write, novels of literary resonance. If they don’t know Rossetti and Rosmersholm, at least they know Virgil and Boethius, right? I also wonder if we’re cultivating habits of diligence and studiousness. Will our students strive to enlarge their minds beyond the period of their brief formal education at Baylor, come what may? I especially wonder if we’re teaching them to ask good and hard questions of institutions, which always harbor the frailties of the human beings who comprise them. Yet rather than acceding to cynicism or individualism, are we inspiring them to recover, renew, and lead the institutions on which we depend?
Our world is better than Rowling’s fictional world, and our faith in Christ makes better sense of the world than the jumbled remnants of traditions Strike inherits. All the more should we offer better education in a Christian tradition true and strong for worthy life in a troubled world.
For our shared work in and beyond the Honors College, please note:
- Revised COVID-19 protocols were issued by the University on Friday. Please review them thoroughly and do your part to encourage sound public health practices as we respond to changing coronavirus pandemic conditions.
- Full launch of 100 Days of Dante draws near, and recent interest from national magazines and podcasts is encouraging. If you’re not receiving updates via email or your social media feeds, please visit the website and sign up. You don’t want to miss the edifying reading, learning, and camaraderie this one-of-a-kind project will foster.
- Remember this Friday’s Academic Open House, scheduled from 3-4:30 p.m. in Alexander Reading Room. Open House provides newly arrived Honors College students opportunity to meet faculty and staff, receive encouragement, and find their bearings during these important early days of the semester. Expect masking, capacity controls, and use of adjacent outdoor spaces.
- Make plans to attend our Honors College faculty and staff meeting on Monday, August 30 at 3:30 p.m. in Alexander Reading Room. The meeting will include introductions of new colleagues, special recognitions, and discussion of key goals for 2021-22, along with time for Q&A. While geared toward full-time faculty and staff, all are welcome to attend.
- Thanks to faculty who served on summer search committees to fill temporary full-time faculty positions. National searches for temporary full-time faculty support EEO compliance, bring well-qualified candidates to our attention, and elevate our national profile. As a result of the searches, Joshua Mobley (PhD, Theology, Durham University) will join us in GTX, and Thomas Spitzer-Hanks (PhD, English, University of Texas) and Katelyn Jaynes (PhD, English, University of Connecticut) in BIC.
- Give a warm welcome to Coco DiMauro (M.A. Southeast Missouri State University), who fills an academic advisor role in the Honors Program. She brings prior experience that spans academic department, counseling clinic, and advising office contexts, and she’ll provide special assistance in advising honors premed students.
- Congratulations to Joel Looper, part-time lecturer in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, on Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land Without Reformation (Baylor, 2021). Joel clarifies Bonhoeffer’s perplexed personal encounter with American Protestantism, and he argues for the ongoing relevance of Bonhoeffer’s trenchant critique. Readers praise Joel for an “excellent theological history,” “a perfect blend of candor, sympathy, and richly informed context,” and “a book that has long needed to be written.” Well done, Joel!
All the best,
Douglas V. Henry | Dean
Honors College | Baylor University
baylor.edu/honorscollege | 254.710.7689