LONDON — “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.
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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 Sunday. In the article, 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 Galbraith and 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.
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 Rowling’s.
After the mega-success of her Harry Potter series, 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.
The story of how The Sunday Times uncovered the truth started Thursday, said Richard Brooks, the paper’s arts editor, after a colleague posted a tweet mentioning 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,” 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, Brooks said. “All traces of this person had been taken off, and we couldn’t find his name again.”