Cracking the case of The Cuckoo's Calling


J.K. Rowling does press for The Casual Vacancy, a novel published under her real name, in 2012. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

First aired on Day 6 (20/7/13)


Before last week, chances are you'd never heard of The Cuckoo's Calling or its author, Robert Galbraith. It came out last April and, despite good reviews, it wasn't selling that well -- it was ranked 4,709 on the Amazon bestseller list. Now The Cuckoo's Calling is #1. The turnaround is thanks to the unmasking of the book's true author, Harry Potter scribe J.K. Rowling. The Sunday Times of London made this blockbuster reveal last week, but they couldn't have done it without Peter Millican, a computer linguistics expert at the University of Oxford.

After the Sunday Times received the tip that Robert Galbraith might actually be J.K. Rowling, they asked Millican to analyse some texts to verify this claim. He agreed, and the newspaper sent him nine books: The Cuckoo's Calling, The Casual Vacancy, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and two novels each by crime writers P.D. James, Val McDermid and Ruth Rendell.

Millican ran the texts through a program he designed called Signature to perform "powerful statistical tests" of the texts. "I did things like looking at the word length, the sentence length, the punctuation, the paragraph length and the usage of common words," he explained to Day 6 guest host Kevin Sylvester. When the tests are complete, "what you would see is a number of different curves representing these graphs." These graphs are then compared to each other. The results for The Cuckoo's Calling were so similar to Rowling's other work that it surprised even Millican. "The Cuckoo's Calling came right next to The Casual Vacancy and quite a long way from any of the texts by the other authors."

While this verified that Rowling was "probably" the author of The Cuckoo's Calling, what clinched it was the similarities between The Cuckoo's Calling and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a result Millican said "was quite a surprise." He believed that the genre of the work would play a bigger role. He was wrong. "That's partly why I thought the result was quite significant."

Does this result imply that Rowling's writing is predictable or formulaic in any way? Absolutely not, Millican says. In fact he believes it shows that she has a distinctive writing style, which is something to be proud of. "I don't think it implies it is formulaic. Actually, to the contrary, if it turned out that there were no such patterns it might suggest that [writers] have no such style at all."

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